This post is the sixth in a series about including diverse voices in English curriculum while exploring issues and needs related to gifted students. This series shares teaching tips for various essays found in the YA nonfiction anthology, Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America.
View the first post and more about this anthology here. Guidelines for integrating this text or individual essays in your curriculum and how to set up things appropriately with your students are also included at this first post.
How do you discuss gender roles and heteronormativity with your students?
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Since my daughter’s birth, we’ve been careful to dress her in non-gender-conforming outfits, and she’s been exposed to nearly every A Mighty Girl book on the market. She fearlessly picks up insects and worms to inspect on a hike, and she also gravitates to princess dresses and tiaras. She is just as hypnotized by Frozen II frenzy as any other 6-year-old might be.
When I was around my daughter’s age, I loved climbing pine trees and getting into arm-wrestling matches with boys in the back of the bus. As a 42-year-old, I love climbing the mesas outside Denver but also love to get my hair bouffanted up and put on full makeup, a nice outfit, and some fancy jewelry. (My wife teasingly calls it my “Texas cheerleader” look.) “The secret to wearing makeup is to make it look like you’re not wearing any,” my mom always said, but ever since college dorm mates showed me exactly how to use full-on makeup (previously a daunting puzzle), I’ve been fascinated with the transformation and confidence that can come with embracing and fully embodying femininity.
I grapple with both the challenges and the privileges of my identity as a cis femme queer woman, but as Jaye Robin Brown questions in her essay “Roar,” just because “other eyes say tone [our femininity] down,” does that mean we have to stop?
And What Do We Mean By “Feminine” Anyway?
Spoken and unspoken cultural messages tell us that to rebel against the objectification of women is to be bold and strong, while to embellish and relish in what is considered traditional femininity and sexuality is to be weak and wimpy. But what about the woman who chooses both–just because she agrees that “there’s no single or right way to girl”? It’s a dichotomy that Jaye Robin Brown’s essay “Roar” tears into as calmly and confidently as a lioness.
This essay will challenge your gifted learners to explore the multifaceted nature of feminism and femininity and what it means to claim personal power in a world where men have routinely claimed women as their own, which is as Brown indicates,“a cultural norm…as subconscious as breathing.”
Gifted youth have the readiness levels to explore concepts for all their gray areas of abstraction. Our role as educators is to allow them that space and cultivate skill development in the analytical reasoning processes that Joyce Van Tassel-Baska and Catherine A. Little describe in Content-Based Curriculum for High-Ability Learners (125). Femininity and masculinity are ill-structured concepts that appear throughout literature our students study, and we can support our students’ growth in deductive and inductive thinking about these generalities. Gifted kids want the challenge of redefining norms, while sometimes coming back to original thoughts and traditions.
Before You Begin
Because each of these stories share voices that are often silenced, they must be given “big space” in the classroom. By that we mean stories must be read more than once, and annotated–listened to, carefully. These stories should be celebrated. They should invite a reader to go inward. They should invite a conversation between the reader and the writer.
These suggested writing and discussion prompts assume that you have done work to set up a safe space in your classroom, that you offer opportunities for students to journal privately as well as for you as the audience, and that you remind students of how to engage respectfully when sharing different opinions. Some questions below are best saved for independent writing, while some might work for small-group discussion, and others, for large-group discussion. Some may be good material for research and independent projects.
Discussion and Writing Prompt Guide
- Consider all the connotations of the word “roar.” What do you predict the theme of the essay will be about based on its title? After you finish reading the complete essay, go back to your prediction. How accurate was it? What theme(s) did the essay contain that you didn’t expect?
- When Brown writes, “I was woman. Hear me roar.” she’s alluding to a song by Helen Reddy called “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” (1971). Compare and contrast the lyrics to Reddy’s song with Katy Perry’s “Roar” (2013).
- How does the author’s choice of words such as “niggling,” “shrinking,” and “quivering” elucidate the point Brown is making about women in this essay?
- Good authors show rather than tell. Name at least two examples of imagery and/or specific details Brown includes to show the theme of belonging to oneself.
- Brown says that one early girlfriend said to her, “Once we finish with our husbands and our families we can find each other and live on a goat farm.” How does this add to the essay’s theme of women giving to men before themselves? Identify two other examples in the essay of ways women are “not our own.”
- Explain the significance of Brown’s father’s comment, “Why don’t you get her two suits this year instead of one?” What is so important about Brown including the detail “this year”?
- #MeToo has been a movement not only against sexual harassment and assault, but about coming forward, telling the truth, and identifying perpetrators. Why can truth-telling often be so difficult? Why do you think the author decided to “tell” about her father’s bathing suit comment, even though he was the man she “loved more than any man in the world”?
- Research the allusion the author makes with the description of “the recent presidential election. When a man judged his incredibly smart, talented, and capable daughter on her physical appearance as if that were the pinnacle of her success. Or, more realistically, the pinnacle of his success”? How does this connect to the memory Brown had of her father?
- What is the effect of juxtaposing the detail of Brown’s mother’s Ph.D with the fact that she brought her father “breakfast and supper every single day”?
- Brown includes the fact that she is from Alabama. How do you believe one’s geographical location can play a role in their experience of sexism and/or heteronormativity?
- Brown says she had no lesbian role models growing up. Why do role models matter so much when it comes to discovering one’s sexual orientation?
- Identify at least two sentence fragments within the work and explain the effect of those sentence fragments on the meaning of the work as a whole.
- Compare how these two quotes illuminate Brown’s internal conflicts as a teenager and as a woman.
- “Being objectified as a teen had left me feeling like hooking up was the way to prove I was someone.”
- “I thought, maybe this is what marriage is? You find a nice guy who is your friend, and even though your heart doesn’t go boom, boom, boom, you marry him, because he’ll be a good provider and never abuse you or your future children.”
- What does Brown mean by “name my gay”?
- Why is Brown so insistent upon self-possession and personal power when it comes to femininity? Choose two quotes from the essay and discuss how the quotes reflect her beliefs.
Making a personal connection
- Define heteronormativity and give two examples of it from your personal experiences, observations, current events, social media, or other aspects of your life.
- Select one of the following quotes from “Roar” and prioritize them according to how much they resonate with your personal experiences and/or observations of gender roles. If they don’t resonate, create a quote of your own.
- “…that roar wasn’t about who I was, but how I looked.”
- “…as a girl, it didn’t take long for me to figure out we are not considered our own.”
- “You look like that? Well then, you act like this.”
- “There’s a cultural norm at play. A level of expectation that is as subconscious as breathing.”
- Trace the development of cultural icons and heroines of femininity over the past century. For example, how does Cinderella compare with Elsa from Frozen, or Moana? Who are some of your favorite literary, cinematic, and/or celebrity heroines? What makes them inspiring to you?
- How are teens today defining femininity in new ways? How are you blazing new trails that capture your gender identity? How are you part of the ongoing transformative work out there?