December 31, 2008

Popular culture teaching feminism

I have not seen Revolutionary Road yet but Melisa Silverstein’s piece has me more excited than ever.

Revolutionary Road is a tough movie for a woman who grew up after the women’s movement of the 1970s to watch, but after watching it a couple of times I actually think that it should be required watching for all young women who think that feminism is irrelevant. (Disclaimer, I am a consultant to the studio and organized a blogger screening for the film.)

The film tells the story of April and Frank Wheeler living the post World War Two “American dream” that morphs into the American nightmare. It is the era described in the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan the book that articulated for women the “problem with no name” which Kate Winslet read while preparing for her role as April. She stated in an interview: “It was the era of prescription medication, you know, and women really starting to believe …Maybe I’m crazy, because I don’t want this life, I think there’s something wrong with me.'” (The Guardian)

April and Frank were was supposed to be different. But they weren’t. They were exactly the same as everyone on their boring suburban street and that’s what was driving them both crazy. But the thing is that Frank had options and choices and given the fact that it is 1955, April did not. Frank went into the city everyday on the train with lots of other men to their boring jobs and April was stuck at home.

She had no choices, no options.

A scene that really shows April’s suffocation is when she takes out the garbage cans and positions them perfectly on the curb. She then looks up and sees all the other garbage cans perfectly positioned on the curbs up and down the street. Her face at seeing all the cans, the disbelief that this has become her life is palpable. Juxtapose that with the scene of Frank standing on the train smoking and breathing in the fresh air and the suburbs fly by. He’s free, she’s in a box.

As Silverstein points out, films that can accurately portray the conditions that led to the second wave of feminism, or the Women’s Liberation Movement, are important for young women AND men today that often believe that feminism is unimportant or outmoded.  The haze of collective amnesia is thick.  It is always striking to me when young women don’t have a sense of their own history as women and lack  a working knowledge of the women and men that paved the way for their own choices. The women and men that do acknowledge gender issues usually proclaim the ever popular phrase, “I’m not a feminist but…”

While I maintain a critical eye on the fabric of popular culture, I am the first to acknowledge and utilize popular culture as a relevant learning tool.  Films like Iron Jawed Angels, North Country, Far From HeavenThe Hours and , shows like Mad Men and Sex and the City provide points of analysis that resonate with many young people and provide opportunities to move beyond their preconceived notions. These films and shows often provide the first puncture mark in the bubbled reality many people have about women, men, gender, feminism’s place historically and in the future.  That’s saying a lot.  I have no doubt that I’ll incorporate this film into my own curriculum.