“Killing Us (All) Softly”

There are some critics out there, many of them thoughtful, serious and balanced, who passionately oppose even the idea of private boys’ schools because they see schools like UCC as bastions of privilege, institutions designed to reinforce not-so-subtle notions of crested, blue-blazered inequality, class power, and gender discrimination. On this last point, these skeptics often argue that, based on our exclusively all male student population, our schools are intentionally designed to perpetuate the marginalization of women.

Those of us who work in boys’ schools take these charges seriously, and that’s one of the reasons why we survey our alumni every year to get their insights on this and other concerns. By the way, our Old Boys overwhelmingly report that, while they are very positive about their overall UCC experience, they admit that it took them a while to adjust to studying and working with and for women in university and beyond. That is why, in addition to offering traditional coeducational experiences in drama, music, debate, and service, 3 years ago we started a coeducational “Theory of Knowledge” course with Branksome Hall.

While the ToK course and other coeducational experiences are helpful, the larger questions about what role the school can or should play in helping us develop healthy, positive attitudes about women remain. If our talk of values like being “balanced” or “principled” or “caring” means anything, it should provide a framework for open discussions about sensitive issues like gender and sexuality. So here goes.

Some of you may have seen the article on this topic in last Saturday’s “Globe and Mail.” (If you missed it, you might want to take a look at “In the Age of Internet Porn, Teaching Boys to be Good Men.”) In it, columnist, Zosia Bielski, refers to “Killing Us Softly,” Jean Kilbourne’s powerful documentary which explores how women are often manipulated, objectified, and marginalized by the media.

Before showing the trailer for “Killing Us Softly,” I want to offer a quick word of caution. Wiser folks than I have told me not to show this in Laidlaw Hall; they’ve said that it just won’t work because of our setting, because you are surrounded by your peers, and also because of way the film depicts women. I am an optimist, though, and I am counting on you to show a high degree of maturity, especially this morning, especially with this topic. Please make sure that there are no comments or catcalls for the next 4 and half minutes. If you agree or disagree with what you hear or see, that is fine. But remember we may have moms, aunts, sisters, or friends who are affected by this. If you want to talk about this afterwards, please come see me or follow up with your advisor tomorrow morning. But for the next couple of minutes, I ask that you just watch and listen quietly and respectfully.

Thanks in advance for your help with this.

I have worked in 3 different girls schools and in each one of those schools, and in every other girls’ school I know, there is a deliberate and continual effort made to help girls feel that they are worthy. (This problem of perceived unworthiness tends to be less significant in boys schools.) Girls’ schools focus a great deal of energy on mental and emotional health issues, and tremendous efforts are made to help girls see their humanity, their capacity, and their full potential. Despite all of this, though, the enormous pressure from the media and the wider culture still wears on girls, and it can insidiously undermine their health and their emotional well-being.

This is a very important issue because, if you buy the argument that advertisements tell us something about who we are, then all of us, men and women, can be dehumanized by the relentless lies and manipulations which fool some of us into thinking that we are just objects.

While I endorse much of what Jean Kilbourne says in “Killing Us Softly,” I disagree with her in one key respect: the tyranny of perfection or the objectification of the human form is more than just a “public health” problem. I see it as an existential problem, a problem of the soul.

I believe that we are more than blobs of protoplasm, however trim and attractive those blobs may be. (Stop me if I start to blush here.) If I were scripting my own “This I Believe” speech, I’d share my personal conviction that we are all spiritual as well as physical beings; that we sell ourselves frighteningly short if we fail to understand that we are more than just a curious collection of cells that are activated at birth and de-activated at death; that we are not just animate beings strapped by gravitational pull to a rotating rock as it spins through an indifferent universe.

No matter what the mass media and popular culture might have us believe, I believe that all of us, men as well as women, are much, much more than just our physical presence, and that life itself is more than just a celebration of nerve endings. This I believe.

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3 Responses to ““Killing Us (All) Softly””

  1. Anon Says:

    I for one am sending my son to an all-boys school for the remainder of his elementary years because I believe that the public school system caters to the feminine way of learning. I am preserving his masculine way of learning by removing him from a system that does not allow him to be a boy with the energy and distraction of a boy. I also believe that some of his attitude toward women is a result of the value system in the home.
    Just my thoughts.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I think this is definitely not only an important topic to raise, but a necessary one. From my own participation in Night TOK, dances etc. I find that any misogyny or sexism that goes on at the school or from UCC students is simply from guys not being around women. However I find that the video might be difficult for the guys to relate to because it discusses the effect of the media on women rather than the effect that the media has on male perceptions of women (not that the former is not a crucial topic to discuss, but rather that it might not hit home with guys on a Monday morning). I could be off, but that was my interpretation.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Good for you for talking about the integration challenge of single sex schools that pre-occupies me (both ways) and for addressing the issue of how the media view women.

    It was a very interesting globe article, and I think you’re kind of following the advice of having a trusted man bring up these issues in a safe environment. I hope and trust they will take it seriously as you ask. And to the people who don’t think you should show it, they must know boys see images like this (and far more provocative) on a regular basis. These look completely normal to them. That’s the whole point of the doc, in my view.

    This is how we change attitudes, one small step at a time, so thank you for doing it.

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