Tropes vs Women: Feminist Frequency in the Classroom

Feminist Frequency

I questioned this lesson plan several times. I took it on and off the syllabus. It was the most nervous I had been to teach in years. Ultimately, I’m not sure why I ended up leaving Feminist Frequency’s “Damsel in Distress (Part 1) on my freshman composition syllabus. I know exactly why I wanted to take it off. I had never been big on bringing my politics into the classroom, preferring to discuss “neutral” topics, seem impartial, or let students pursue their own inquiry-led research. This required a departure from that teaching style.

More than that, I was afraid. I didn’t know what students might think or say about women in video games. Of course, teaching is always sort of like this. You never know what direction a conversation will take or what you might need to quickly respond to. This seemed more high-stakes than usual, though. Would students resist feminism or be reluctant to engage? Would the women in the classroom be shut down? Would I need to intervene in a hostile conversation? Even ask someone to leave the classroom?

And so, I was nervous. I typed out almost every word I wanted to say that day, making notes for myself about how I might steer back a troublesome conversation. I took extra time to get ready that morning, attempting to cover my nerves with a blazer and high heels.

My eighteen students — almost evenly men and women — had watched “Damsel in Distress” for homework that day. I reserved discussion until the very end in case things went badly.

It was the best classroom discussion I’ve ever had.

Feminist Frequency

One of the goals of freshman composition at my university is to gain rhetorical awareness. The first unit always focuses on narratives — how they are rhetorical, make arguments, or “do work,” as my colleague explains it. Stories make arguments, both explicit and implicit. At the most basic level, the choice about what to include in a narrative and what to skip makes an argument about what is important.

I chose to focus this unit on narratives in video games and asked my students to play, discuss, and ultimately create video games. This made the “Damsel in Distress” video ideal because it considers narrative features such as plot, tropes, and character development and how they make arguments about women’s roles.

This led to a discussion of Krystal’s transformation between the unreleased Dinosaur Planet to Star Fox Adventures, which is Sarkeesian’s opening example of the damsel in distress trope. My students especially responded to how changes to Krystal’s placement in the plot and her appearance signify a very different role, reducing her from the central heroine to the damsel in distress. These insights and connections between narrative and argument were exactly what I was hoping for.

However, the best thing that happened is that the women spoke as loudly and confidently as the men do every day. Like FemHype, the classroom should, ideally, be a safe space for ideas and discussion from everyone. Yet, research continues to show that women struggle to participate in the classroom, even as they begin to outnumber men in universities. 

A teaching guide from Columbia University explains some of the subtle ways in which classroom and gender dynamics affect student participation, and it addresses both student and instructor behaviors. Men are more likely to speak, and instructors are more likely to call on them and use their names in doing so. Women are less likely to speak, and when they do, they are more likely to be interrupted, speak more quietly, and qualify their statements (saying “I guess” or “maybe”) or apologize for them altogether (“I may be wrong, but …”).

As an instructor, I am mindful of these dynamics in my classroom, especially because I also tend toward silence and qualifying as a student. I’ve often noticed more men participating in my classes, but I didn’t realize how quiet the women were until I heard them speak so confidently about women in video games.

Feminist Frequency

This shift happened as we began discussing Krystal. Women made statements without qualifiers. Women responded to other women. Women spoke without being called on. I heard their voices clearly. Something about this topic gave them the confidence to speak. Additionally, discussing feminism didn’t shut men down or produce any of the hostility I feared. Instead, men and women spoke to each other, asked good questions, and engaged the topic in productive and interesting ways.

I can’t say that I fully understand what happened that day. I also can’t say that I’ve been able to encourage women to participate in the same way since. But, as I reflect, I realize it has been a disservice to my students to pretend that the classroom was a neutral place for so long. When gender (and other) dynamics are always already affecting learning experiences, how can educators address these power structures and make the classroom an inclusive environment?

I’m inspired by a colleague’s assignment on avatars and how student avatar creation can lead these important discussions and perhaps help shift classroom dynamics. As I continue to think about how to address identity, gender, race, and disability in the classroom, I’m finding video games to be a really interesting place to turn.


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