Tracing texts of desire: Assisting adolescent girls to (re) envision the male gaze
By Gina DeBlase
On a mid-March morning, I sat in the back of the classroom while Mary, the eighth grade English teacher, stood in front of her class and introduced the Greek myth students were to read that day ("The Arrow and the Lamp: The Story of Psyche" in Applebee, Literature and Language, p. 586). "Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was jealous because men had stopped going to her temple," she told her class. "We read myths," she went on to explain, "because they have truths for us today." But how do adolescent girls construct these "truths" as they think about them through the lens of their own lives? What do these understandings mean for teaching and learning in the language arts classroom?
By examining the thinking of two of the girls in this class, this paper explores how culturally dominant gender roles and power relations can and do replicate themselves in girls' own thinking about self and world as they engage in classroom literacy events, such as those around the teaching of this myth. Letrice, one of the girls, wrote her own "modern day" myth modeled after the Greek myth the class read. In my conversation with Emily, she talked about her assumptions and beliefs as they related to the ideas represented in the myth.
Both girls attend a K-8 building with a culturally diverse student population. More than ninety-seven percent of the students are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program. Letrice and Emily's ideas and views underline the critical importance of teaching adolescent girls, and particularly poor girls and girls of color, to "talk back" to texts and to dominant society's understandings and rationalizations of who they are as adolescent girls. I begin by providing a feminist reading of "The Arrow and the Lamp." I then turn to a particular classroom event that occurred around the assigned "modern day myth" Letrice wrote and, finally, to my conversation with Emily, in order to exemplify these points.
Psyche and Eros
In this classic Greek myth, Psyche, who is mortal, is so beautiful that no man dares to marry her. Word of Psyche's beauty reaches the goddess Aphrodite who, in a jealous rage, curses her to a life of misery. Psyche's parents, convinced that no mortal man will ever marry their daughter, leave her to her fate on top of a mountain. The god Eros, who is the equally beautiful son of Aphrodite, marries Psyche but chooses to remain invisible to her. Eros warns her that she must trust him unequivocally and never try to cast her gaze upon him. Psyche's sisters, jealous of her happiness, convince her to betray Eros and look at him. When she holds a lamp up to his face, Eros abandons her. To win him back, Psyche agrees to perform a series of tasks assigned to her by Aphrodite, each increasingly more dangerous and difficult. Upon successfully completing the tasks, Psyche worries that such arduous toiling has diminished her beauty. Her worrying causes her to open a forbidden box containing the beauty of yet another goddess, Persephone, and she immediately falls into a deep sleep. Eros, recovered from his anger toward her, wipes away the spell of sleep, makes her immortal, and they live together forever.
From a feminist perspective, this myth evolves around the perils of being too beautiful. It is a story about how gods, goddesses, and mortals view Psyche. Their judgment of her rests in the gaze they cast on her physical self. Her difficulties begin when she is deemed to be so beautiful that mortal men, fearful of an abundance of female beauty, refuse to marry her. Unable to find a husband for their daughter, Psyche's parents abandon her. Although her beauty is threatening to mortal men, the god, Eros, enticed by such beauty, desires to possess her and so marries her. Once in the realm of the gods and goddesses, though, her troubles are far from ended. When she defies her husband's order that she never look at him, he casts her out. From here, encounters with her own sisters and with Aphrodite, all who act out of jealousy over her beauty, lead her on a course of great danger and peril to her own life. In the end, assisted by more benevolent gods, she is willing to try to overcome extreme physical danger in order to regain the love of Eros. Significantly, she is not the least disturbed with the terrible treatment or with the physical dangers she has endured at the hands of others. Rather, she worries that her physical beauty has so far diminished that Eros will no longer desire her.
This myth places both Psyche and the female reader within a double-bind. It is clear that Psyche's entire self-identity as well as others' perceptions of her are caught up in her physical body. The sum of who she is equals nothing more or less than the measure of her beauty and her ability to attract a male provider. However, beauty, especially an abundance of beauty, proves to be a very dangerous thing. Thus the double-bind -- while beauty is something to which women need to aspire if they wish to have any positive social identity at all, at the same time possessing too much of it causes both men and women (both mortal and immortal) to turn against such a beautiful woman out of fear or jealousy. Further, Psyche's strong physical desire for Eros and the fact that she casts her gaze upon him, results in her banishment. In addition, because her desire continues unabated, she is willing to overcome any fear she has and take on the perilous tasks assigned to her by Aphrodite. It seems clear that while it is appropriate and acceptable for her to be the object of the male's gaze and accompanying desire, it is not appropriate for her to act in a similar manner.
Letrice writing and shaping her life through the cultural lens of mythology
After students took turns reading this myth aloud, Mary summarized the events of the story for them and then repeated that, "We read myths because they have truth for us today."
This simple pronouncement, apparently uncomplicated on the surface of it, in fact has enormous implications for adolescent girls. (The girls in this classroom self-identified as African-American, African-American/ Puerto-Rican, Native American, Puerto-Rican, and White). Impressing on girls the idea that "truth" resides in Greek mythology brings to the forefront questions about whose version of truth they are reading, what that truth signifies, and its consequences on the lives of these girls, both in and out of the classroom. Without assisting girls to learn how to ask these kinds of critical questions and to pose possible answers and solutions, girls like Letrice and Emily often take up literacy events (reading, writing, and classroom discussion) as opportunities to replicate patriarchal influences in their own lives. Letrice's version of the "modem day myth," which Mary assigned students as the writing assignment in conjunction with reading the myth, is a case in point.
Letrice's "modern day myth"
The day after they read the myth, Mary asked students to write their own modern day version, She provided them with "story starters" written on poster board and taped to the chalkboard. She instructed students that, if they were having problems starting their stories, they should use one of the starters she provided. These were the story starters:
- Eros decides to test the eighth grade girl's worthiness.
- There is a very beautiful girl in high school who heard that the boys were more interested in an eighth grader named Psyche.
- A boy named Eros wants to marry Psyche. His mother says she'll test Psyche to see if she's a good person to marry him. This is what she did.
These story starters follow closely the plot of the original myth. In each instance, the girl is cast as an object of desire and finds herself either as the rival of another girl (2) or as having to prove herself worth of the attention of a man (1, 3). Students were given approximately two class days to write their versions of a modern day myth. When they were completed, the student authors read their myths in front of the class, sitting in the "storyteller's chair," which was the stool in front of the room where Mary usually sat. Letrice, who self-identified as African-American, was eager to read.
Letrice: Can I go [first]?
Mary: Okay. You sit in the storyteller's chair. [Letrice sits on the stool.]
Letrice: There was a girl named Patrice and a boy named Eros. They started going together. His mother was like (unt). They was going to school. They were in the eighth grade. And Eros asked her to go. And she said she's got to think it over because of their friendship if they break up. So then she gave him her answer in a week and she said, "Yeah." And then the summer came. So then he had to go to summer school at Hatch Tech and she was going to Belmont. So they were going to different high schools.
So he got a message that she was going with this other dude, Justin. He was, like, going to get even. So he started going with this other girl, Lena. So the girl Patrice is like, oh, okay. So she went to the girl Lena and she pressed her. So why are you going with my boyfriend?" So, like, Lena was suppose to be Patrice's best friend. Whatever. So called. So then Patrice was like, "Why are you going with my boyfriend?" And Lena was like, "Because I want to." So the girl Patrice was, like, busted her in the mouth. So the principal came and broke the fight up. Right?
So Patrice saw Justin and she was cussing him out and stuff, asking why he was going with Lena. And he was, like, because he heard that I was going, that she was going with Justin. So Patrice told Lena that they weren't friends anymore because she was a backstabber. Anyways, she was like, does she go with Justin or whatever? And he wanted to sleep with her. But they got back together. Whatever.
So Patrice asked him when she was going to meet his mother. And he said, "Come to my house after school." So she went over there. And his mother spoon faced her [gave her a dirty look]. So Patrice paid no attention to her. So his mother was talking about Patrice to her son. And he said, "Why don't you like her?" And she's like, "Because she's prettier than me and I don't want you to lose your concentration from me." So she was like, "You gotta break up with her." So he was like, "Okay."
So then they came to school that day and he told her that his mother didn't want him to go with her no more. And she was like, "Why?" He was like, "Because she's jealous." She was, like, "What for?" He was like, "She said you're prettier than her." So then he don't want to break up with her. So they did it. Right? … So he went home with her. And Patrice called him and told him that she was pregnant and then his mother listened because he had told his mother. So then after he had told his mother, she knew he was bad. So she put him in a home [juvenile detention center]. And he's upset because he can't raise his child from inside the home. So Patrice had to pull some strings to see if she could get him out. So she went and asked her mother if she could get him out. And she said, "Yeah." So her mother got him out. And he lived with them and they lived happily ever after."
Together with the close association between the names Letrice and Patrice, the myth's close resemblance to people and places in her life is striking. In fact Letrice inadvertently moved from third person narrator to the first person when she said, "…He heard that I was going, that she was going with Justin. She used the real name of her friend, Lena, who, in the story, is her nemesis. Also Justin, who in the story seeks the attention of both Patrice and Lena, is the name of a seventh grade boy in this school who is very popular with the girls because he is so handsome. In reality, Justin had been in the middle of several love triangles in the school. Like Letrice, both Patrice and Eros were in eighth grade. The two schools that she mentioned in the story were the names of actual highs in this city.
The fact that Letrice chose not to disguise the characters in this story is significant. In early adolescence, girls search for a sense of self in relationships with peers and they have a tendency to make decisions base on peer culture (Pipher, 1994). Letrice situated her story, which appears to be semi-autobiographical, in that which she knows. Letrice's story is reminiscent of Anne Haas Dyson's research (1997) with younger children in an urban classroom. Her work demonstrated how the stories they wrote were shaped by an ideological "common sense" (p. 155), "a taken-for-granted assumption about how a made-up story [about romance, for example] would 'naturally' be constructed (p. 155). She found that these stories, like Letrice's story, have points of contact with the social dilemmas associated with the child's experience and that such stories involve complex social negotiations of identity. When Letrice told her story to the class, she was animated and excited. She volunteered to go first. Although Mary's "story starters" provided a script for writing the story and "The Lamp and the Arrow" was the template, Letrice knew beforehand how to write her modern day myth because she was already familiar with this particular patriarchal storyline.
When 1 read Letrice's story from the same critical feminist stance as I read, "The Lamp and the Arrow," it became apparent that in her story exist the almost identical gender roles and relations. The female characters become objects of the male gaze and must vie for his attention. Letrice was easily able to accommodate and replicate the myth's storyline around Aphrodite's jealous reaction to the beauty of the rival for her son's affection. There is a deep irony that resides in the teaching of the myth and Letrice's (re)telling of her own modern day myth. The telling of stories, or myths, that construct girls as objects of others' desires with few desires of their own, perpetuates a central, or defining myth of American culture, and that is that men give meaning and completeness to women's lives and that women's destinies are intimately and inextricably bound up within this patriarchal social relation.
The trouble with "happily ever after": Weaving lived experiences into the text of desire
However, Letrice's story moved away from the plotline of the myth when she wrote into it the progression of desire and longing to the actual sex act, pregnancy, and childbirth. In integrating a more explicit like portrayal of romantic relationships between men and women (or, in Letrice's myth, between a teenage boy and girl), Letrice wove into classroom literacy events the reality of sex, consequent pregnancy, and teen parenthood. What is particularly significant, and a point that I will take up in more detail later, is that, to Letrice, this signifies a "happily ever after" ending.
As data from class discussions and interviews with the girls in this classroom revealed, pregnancy and having babies consumed much of their attention. Letrice's modern day myth is only one example of the girls' attention to these issues in their lives. In interviews, many girls talked of reading about pregnancy in teen magazines or avoiding pregnancy to appease the desires of their own mothers or in order not to "make the same mistakes" as some of their friends. One eighth grade girl who was a teen parent told me that having a baby was the most important thing she had done thus far in her life. The girls in this study were as much concerned with not having babies as they were with having them, and they saw the ability to give birth as the primary difference between men and women. In fact, by the end of the school year, Letrice herself was pregnant. Even though the girls had varying opinions about whether having babies while still a teenager was desirable or not, it was very clear that desire, pregnancy, and motherhood were central issues in their lives.
Emily: "You know … they don't like … teenage mothers."
Although she and her mom now lived in their own apartment, Emily, another girl in this class, spent much of her young life living in homeless shelters with her mother. Perhaps because of this experience, she possessed a keen understanding of the ways in which government can intrude on the lives of girls and women and, as a result, constructs social identities that degrade and demean these women. "You know, of course," she told me, "they [the state] don't like welfare mothers or teenage mothers … [because] they go on welfare and that takes money away from the country or city, or whatever."
However, when I asked her why she thought there were teenage pregnancies in her school, she immediately blamed the girls. According to Emily, they get pregnant "because girls don't keep their legs shut." It is more than coincidence that Emily takes on the language of the dominant society as a way to make sense of teen pregnancy. Without being consciously aware of it, she took up the same blaming stance for which she had just indicted the government. Although at some level she understood the ways government can cultivate a general mistrust of poor, single mothers, without the opportunity to share her thinking as part of a collaborative, critical inquiry, she was not able to connect this understanding to the tangible, lived experiences of some of the adolescent girls she knew.
Just as Psyche casting her gaze upon Eros proved dangerous for Psyche, so too in the girls' lives desire was construed as dangerous and they were fully aware that in their own lives sometimes desire overcomes fear. Perhaps for the girls this is what resonated across their own experiences and the story of Psyche. The danger for the girls, as they saw it, existed not so much in having sex and becoming young mothers as it did within others' socially constructed perceptions around teen pregnancy.
The ways in which girls are asked to transact with texts implies particular ideals about the nature of readers and writers and their relations as subjects of texts, as subjects in the world and, ultimately, about meaning and language itself. Consequently, girls need to learn to locate the texts they read as well as themselves within larger social contexts. They need opportunities to critically inquire into the interconnectedness of social conditions and social identities and the texts, which represent different and competing cultural perspectives.
As Letrice and Emily demonstrate, students are autonomous individuals who are not completely determined by the culture within which they live but, on the other hand, not completely "free" from the dominant ideologies which shape that culture. They are capable of, and in fact they do, negotiate, resist, and act within the multiple discourses and languages that shape their lives, just as Letrice and Emily did.
What adolescent girls bring to text, how they interpret and interact with literacy events, and the connections they make to their own experiences are often mirrors into the identities they have constructed for themselves and for others. These identities emerge, in part, from internalizing, or taking on, society's assumptions of who they are and who they are capable of becoming. Letrice's modern day myth and Emily's ideas about teen moms clearly demonstrate this interaction. Girls need critical reading strategies in order to "talk back" to the text and to society's interpretations of who they are as adolescent girls. The democratic potential of opening space for girls' enhanced awareness of the multiple, sometimes conflicting language for understanding texts and social issues exists in a valuing of the voices girls engage to act upon their lives. In the classroom, this can be accomplished in the following ways:
- Form reader response circles where reading is acknowledged as a social activity. Students can pick one passage they find the most interesting or important, explain why, and invite others to respond.
- Teach girls to respond critically to literature. Incorporate more literature by and about women, and for all the literature students read, ask questions about whose perspective is represented and whose interests are served. Ask students to consider how the story might be different if the genders of the characters were reversed.
- Include stories whenever possible (from local newspapers and magazines) that depict neighborhood and community women in important roles in society and in roles that break free of stereotypes.
Giving girls skills to comprehend literature is not the same as teaching them to understand the "why" of literature in the context of their personal and social experiences (Hynds, 1997). Literacy plays an important part in the construction of gender because it shapes our identities and provides us with a way of being in the world. Continuing to deepen our understanding of literacy as a social practice is essential work toward a more just and democratic society.
Applebee, A. (Ed.). (1994). Literature and language. Boston: McDougal Littell & Co.
Dyson, A.H. (1997). Writing superheros: Contemporary childhood, popular culture, and classroom literacy. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hynds, S. (1997). On the brink: Negotiating literature and life with adolescents. New York: Teachers College Press.
Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the lives of adolescent girls. New York: Ballantine Books.
Reference Citation: DeBlase, Gina. (2003). "Tracing texts of desire: Assisting adolescent girls to (re)vision the male gaze." WILLA, Volume XII, p. 4-9.