WILLA v11 - In The Classroom - All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go: Implications of Feminine and Sexual Identity for English Curriculum and Teaching

Volume 11
Fall 2002

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go:
Implications of Feminine and
Sexual Identity for English Curriculum and Teaching

Mary Styslinger
University of South Carolina

When I don't have anything better to do, I get "all dressed up and nowhere to go." I drive around town looking pretty, hoping to catch someone's eye. I guess my question to myself is: Shouldn't I be able to do that for myself?

This is the question Rachel asks, and as she sits across from me, sipping an overpriced mochaccino and picking at a raisin scone, I think of how in this context, our previous roles are reversed. This young woman, who sometimes struts, more often ambles, her way into my English classroom, is now my teacher, imparting the secrets of her life. I listen carefully, curious. While I may be privy to her standardized test scores, I know much too little about her construction of self.

As a feminist teacher-researcher, I endeavor to understand the means and effects of implementing feminist curricular ideas. Whenever possible, I address the topic of gender in relation to text in my classroom. Welthow, Hrothgar's gold ringed queen; the Woman from Bath, Chaucer's lusty Medieval pilgrim; and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare's ballsy temptress all spur vigorous discussions of femininity and sexuality with students. I extend much effort in analyzing these paper and ink representations. But perhaps my energy might also be directed at better understanding the blood and bone reality of the young women I teach, like Rachel, who reaches across the table for my bagel. How does my understanding of feminism relate to and affect theirs?

To that end I investigated how the exploration of gender and of the construction of self (or selves) through English curriculum and teaching, especially with my feminist lens, impact eight women (between the ages of 18 and 21), once students in my secondary English classroom. Using an analysis of journal entries, transcribed interviews, and background surveys, I investigated the relationships between my promotion of critical reflection upon gendered self (selves) in the classroom and these young women's own definitions. How did they define feminine and sexual identity (or did they define identities), I wondered, and how did their definitions match (or not) my pedagogy? I was interested in learning about lived realities, not just understanding of literary realities, of a generation of women born post-sexual revolution in terms of how they defined the concept of "feminine" and how they understood sexual identity as a woman.

Defining Feminine

When defining "feminine," these young women agree that it is a performance, which requires the use of costumes and props, a role outside of one's real self. Dawayna explains, "It's a way that you carry yourself. It's doing your hair. It's putting on make-up, it's, you know, the way that you would dress." "When I think of myself as feminine," Jennifer adds, "I think of the me who walks in make-up and smelling lotions and getting my hair cut or colored or dyed or anything, and shopping, and, like, getting dressed up. I mean, I see feminine as more of, like, things that women add to themselves instead of who they are naturally."

These women speak of pressure to meet the expectations of others. Dawayna admits to projecting a different self in order to please the "fluffs" at her school:

When I'm with them, I find myself, like, partaking in their conversations and talking about hairdos and going to the hair salon and stuff like that and I feel like, "Oh my God. I can't believe I'm talking about this. I actually assimilate into their conversations, and then after it's done, I walk away, and I'm, "You know, I really could give a shit about that," and I find myself doing that with a lot of women. I do that with a lot of women.

As with any performance, the response of an audience greatly influences performers.

The reaction of males is also central to the identity construction of these young women. Audrey realizes that cutting her hair in layers, wearing make-up, losing weight, and dressing in form-fitting clothes gives her the masculine attention she so desires, admitting that once she started acting more feminine, she got different results. There is an allure to that which being feminine allows. Margaret longs to be an object of beauty, at last for a little while, but then there is the other part, the "hard ass," who "feels like I'm cheapening myself if I don't go out and do that for myself." "Why is it<" Rachel wonders, that if I don't make myself look like a Barbie doll, my self esteem and confidence hit the floor? I hate playing this Barbie because it is so not me."

Along with pressures to act feminine are pressures these women feel not to do so. While they describe external forces (other young women and men) coercing them to behave and dress in a particular way, they also describe their internal struggles with this pretense. All eight females share their growing frustration with and resistance to acting this part. There is vehemence to their words. Sara wants to "be who I want to be and who I am comfortable being, and I don't give a shit about your stereotypes." Audrey tries not to think about the "feminine thing" too much since it is an "ugly, ugly, stupid, pink circle, and it's prissy." "It's a stupid, learned term," Diane asserts. Audrey resists the "softer caretaker" role, wanting instead to be strong. And Rachel wants to be the type of woman who is completely self-sufficient. There can be no doubt that this generation of young women is in a state of flux as multiple opportunities for self construction are available to them. Seemingly in conflict are the feminine and sexual identities. Rachel acknowledges that one of her conflicted performances is as "slut Rachel:"

The slut Rachel is a person that I love and hate. The slut Rachel is only over men. I don't have to have sex with anybody to have, to be, the slut Rachel. I just have to have this power over the men, you know, whether it's wearing something extremely sexy, and it's stupid, at the grocery store, at the checkout line and wearing something just really skimpy or something, leaning over and saying, "Can I have change for this," or something, just something extremely stupid that I know that what I just did to them, and it was just an amazing feeling of, "Huh! Look who I am!" And it's more of a power, control thing. That's the part that I love about it, and a part that I hate about it is feeling like "Okay, well he just used me," the morning after, the empty inside…I think that it's very frustrating for me, on the days that I'm the opposite of the slut, to think of, oh, why do women do this to ourselves? Why do we wear make-up and blink our eyes at men?

These young women are well aware of the various roles they perform and of the power that performing in those roles provide.

Defining Sexual Identity

Just as these females problematize the feminine self, so do they acknowledge less conventional conceptualizations of sexual identity, including exploration of bisexuality, asexuality and homosexuality as ways of constructing their own sexuality.

Dawayna openly explores the idea of bisexuality. Rachel also feels "free to love whomever I wish. It's easy to be attracted to many types of people when you're bisexual. Doubles your chances, you know?"

Some of the young women do not feel sure they fit easily into any category. Audrey has never noticed any lesbian tendencies, but admits that she does not know how to label herself. Neither does Sara feel sure of her sexual identify, and admits to spending much of her adolescence wondering about it:

My entire adolescent life has been this circle to my sexuality-am I gay, am I not? I would be having sexual fantasies about a woman and the other self would completely snap me out of it, and say, "What the f**k are you doing?"

Jennifer reveals coming to understand a lesbian self:

When I was very much younger, I realized …these are feelings that I had refused to listen to, that I refused to hear …The thoughts would cross my mind and I would say, "No, you know, this isn't me. I have to get married, have three kids. They're going to go to Catholic school, and I'm going to have the perfect life." And …I finally started to listen to that voice in my head and realize that I wasn't straight and that I wasn't going to marry a man.

Margaret, on the other hand, describes herself as asexual. She reports that she sometimes feels like a sensual creature, a passionate creature, but not a sexual creature.

It seems that a singular definition of feminine or sexuality identify for these women is not desirable. Resisting classification, Dawayna does not like to tie herself down to one definition. She feels as though she is just beginning to discover her identity and hopes to live a life of constant change, being the kind of woman who is constantly reinventing herself. Rachel embraces a plural self, "feeling free." Audrey confesses to being "lots of things" and hopes to "continue to change." And Jennifer summarizes her dissatisfaction with societal definitions and expectations about gender in a manner that mirrors what the other girls believe:

I wish you didn't have to define a gender at all because there's so many people who don't fit society's idea, and no one is the same, you know. There's all this stress today on individuality and being yourself, but they still put us in categories. Why does that have to be there? Why does it matter?

Implications for English Curriculum and Teaching

I used a post-structural feminist interpretation of gender as a lens through which to view the lived realities of these eight young women. A post--structural feminist interpretation recognizes gender as shaped by social relations. As gender relations vary both within and over time, gender is defined in terms of roles being played in society. An actor or actress might vary performance in response to the presence, action, or behavior of an audience member, considering what attribute or characteristic might bring affirmation or reward, with the consequence that the social context determines gender-linked behavior ( Platt & Whyld, 1983 ). Thus gender is constantly being produced and reproduced through participation in social practices throughout a lifetime, with no single way of acting feminine in a performance of gender. Coates (1998) explained:

We change because different audiences require different performances--and also because we sometimes feel like playing a different role. All kinds of different 'self are possible, because our culture offers us a wide range of ways of being--but all these ways of being are gendered " (p. 296).

Such a theoretical orientation helps to illuminate the complex and changing realities offered as explanations of their selves by these young women. However, gendered positions are understood only in relationship to other positions. Females perform what is perceived to be appropriate in and for communities. Possibilities of appearance and behavior are reinforced through approval or punishment within and among the various communities to which we belong.

I discovered from my speaking with these young women and through their writing that they recognize society still harbors restricted expectations concerning

I propose feminist teachers and researchers begin to ask ourselves how the English curriculum might help those female students to construct feminine and sexual identities that reflect more critically on their lived experiences. What changes, if any, do the perspectives of these young women suggest for English curriculum and teaching, and in what ways might we best support and facilitate the exploration of gender and self in English classrooms?

First, I propose we expand the literary texts we choose in our classes. It has been suggested that the knowledge of what it means to be female and male is embedded in the narrative structures students live through. Students often mirror themselves in their responses to literature ( Fairbanks, 1995 ). Literary texts project the discursive practices through which each child's identity is formulated and sustained ( Davies, 1989 ) so that if these texts are to support multi-layered realities then educators need to seek out those works with characters and situations which provide multiple representations of identity. We must seize upon those characters who offer us opportunities to probe blurred gendered representations. In this way we might support students as they cross clear boundaries of feminine or sexual identity, prompting students to understand their own varied performances of gendered selves. The literary is thus able to provide opportunities for personal exploration of multi-defined selves. Teachers are then able to provide "special exposure to and emphasis on the multiple roles found in adulthood and how those roles may be maintained simultaneously, may change over time, and/or may conflict with each other" ( Scott & Schau, 1985 , p. 22).

Second, our assignments should help them to experience alternative subject positions. McCracken (1992) posits that it is only as we "add literature written from multiple perspectives and teach ourselves and our students to read both as men and women [that] will we start to reap the individual and cultural benefits long attributed to the reading of literature" (p. 67). While this generation of daughters recognizes the multiplicities and diversities of gendered positions, they are striving and struggling to understand the dissonance such cognitive complexities creates. Such conflict needs to be addressed by teachers within the English curriculum. Unitary notions of the masculine and feminine need to be better problematized by educators. More efforts to dismantle essentialist categories and singular constructions of gender are wanted. Students, especially women, need access to alternative ideology that positions males and females differently. As feminine and sexual roles in society are changing, definitions of gender might be expanded ( Phillips, 1993 ).

Finally, the assignments given in the English classroom should support access to all possible ways of being. English teachers have the means to create practices through reading and writing that make alternative subject positions for males and females available, acceptable, and agreeable. In this way, Martino (1995) stated, "a cultural space can be opened up for the valorization of multiple subjectivities or ways of knowing that are freed from a male/female dualism and hierarchicalized structuring of identity formations" (p. 210). Implementing post-structural feminist theory in the writing classroom could allow students access to many perspectives as students perform multiple voices. Opportunity for exchanges of ideas and interplay among genders would thus be enhanced. Davies and Banks (1995) suggest that access to post-structural theory would allow students to be "liberated from the burden of the writing self" (p. 67). Graves (1993) urges:

We need to turn our attention to producing a more nuanced and complex description of gender (i.e., masculine and feminine, not man/woman) and how it can both affect writing (in ways that the writer may not be aware of) and provide strategies that will be consciously available to both men and women in their writing (p. 144).

A Changed Classroom Context for Rachel

As I make plans to meet with Rachel, this time for lunch, I cannot help but wish she could enroll in my English 12 class once again. There, not only would she be engaged in a feminist critique of paper and ink characters, but also immersed by a crossing of blood and bone subject positions. Opportunities for engaging in playful yet critical reflections upon multiple personal constructions through such activities as dual-voiced journals and multi-genre papers would allow her to wander about her gendered selves. She would have writing spaces to adopt the many facets of male and female voices. She would have legitimate places to record her personal wonderings. True, she might still have "nowhere to go," but her "driving around town" might become more thoughtful in the classroom context. Rather than seeking to define herself solely by the success of her performance for others, she might come to understand her own culpability in creating femininity and sexuality for herself. Not only for Rachel, but for all my students, I hope to create classroom spaces where gendered explorations are facilitated by a caring other who wants to provide a means to discover and embrace the many-gendered self.


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Reference Citation : Styslinger, Mary. (2002), "All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go: Implications of Feminine and Sexual Identify for English Curriculum and Teaching." WILLA , Volume 11, p. 33-36.