A few months ago, I wrote a piece called Teaching “one-way love” and coercion in school: High Horse´s Courting that discussed traditional gender stereotypes and the questionable content of a story used for teaching English to high schoolers.
According to the curriculum used by the school in question it is supposed to work against gender stereotypes in its use of teaching material and is also supposed to discourage stereotyping and stereotypical portrayals of men and women, boys and girls. After thinking a lot about how inappropriate I found the text High Horse´s Courting I decided to take a closer look at the entire textbook. This piece will look at the textbook called Wings 8 Red in whole and see if the story High Horses Courting was simply a one time misstake or if the textbook contains more problematic material in connection to the portrayal of gender and the portrayal of men and boys and women and girls. Working against stereotypes and unfair portrayals all sounds very good but how well is the textbook actually following the curriculum?
The textbook Wings 8 Red was printed in 2009 so I am guessing it is regarded as successful teaching material since it is still used in the classroom. The book is divided into the chapters: The media, Health, The environment and The USA, which are aimed at catching the attention of teenagers.
The chapter discussing the media is at first quite positive since it encourages young teens to be critical of the media and advertisements and to not buy into everything they see or hear, but at the same time it depicts quite stereotypical images of men and women. A few pages are devoted to different magazines and a short description of the magazine and its readers are provided. The magazines that are included in this section are: Time, Newsweek, PC Gamer, Rolling Stone, Seventeen and Cosmopolitan. Time and Newsweek are described as more serious magazines for readers who are interested in politics or economics and both covers show president Barack Obama in a very presidential manner, dressed in a suit and looking quite serious. On the other hand the images shown on the covers of Rolling Stone, Seventeen and Cosmopolitan are all presenting smiling female celebrities that are in some form or another revealing a bit of skin. The Rolling Stone cover shows Britney Spears, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. The image would not have been sexualised if it was not for the fact that her t-shirt is pulled up, revealing her stomach which is unnecessary since the article inside the magazine claims to discuss Britney´s return to music. The covers of Seventeen and Cosmopolitan also show smiling actresses in dresses that are quite revealing. Obviously Cosmopolitan and Seventeen are magazines aimed at young women but I believe that it is possible to find a magazine cover for these magazines that does not show a woman or girl showing skin. Later on in the book, there is a page devoted to Madonna and one of her texts. It shows a picture of the singer as well as the lyrics to one of her songs. All of this is fine, except for the fact that the chosen picture of Madonna is very revealing and is taken from below the stage with focus on her legs and her behind as she is wearing a body and net tights. Again, another picture of Madonna could have been chosen.
I was happy to notice that the next chapter, called Health, discussed eating disorders and the pressure to look and dress a certain way. Despite this I feel like the authors have picked images that are still quite stereotypical and do not do much to back up the text. For example, this chapter includes a picture of a boy wearing sunglasses and sporting a mohawk. On the same page the reader is shown a picture of a girl, dressed in soccer gear, sitting in a dressing room, holding a mirror and checking her makeup before the match, and a picture of a girl looking through a shop window at a mannekin. The depictions of the girls are very stereotypical and from these pictures we can assertain that girls are interested in clothes, shoes, shopping and make up, even as they are performing a sport. What the boy is interested in is not obvious but at least he looks cool.
Despite the fact that the textbook also mentions that boys and men are expected to have big muscles, which might sometimes lead to teen boys taking steriods to build muscles, the textbook then, a few pages later, includes a picture, although animated, of a guy with big bulky muslces, a mohawk and a hard tough look. The body is split into three pictures, one with the upper body, one with the legs, and a third showing a shaved head with a mohawk and a stern look. Even though it is an animated portrayal of a man it still portrays a very stereotypical masculinity with big muscles and a tough and hard look.
Again, a few pages later I am confronted with a picture that I do not appreciate and find very unnecessary. This image is shown in the section The Environment and is used when discussing vegetarian food. The image shows two girls protesting and holding a sign saying: “turn over a new leaf: go vegetarian” while dressed in bikinis made out of leaves. The girls look very amused and I cannot understand how the authors thought this picture was a fine representation of the topic under discussion. It has absolutely nothing to do with vegetarian food and becomes open for interpretation since there is no text to explain the use of the image in the book. Instead it just appears to be an habitual manner of showing off women´s bodies.
In short, talk is cheap and if it is not backed up by pictures that move away from stereotypical images the talk becomes more or less useless. Again, what are we actually teaching children and teenagers if we are not careful and mindful of the school material we present them with?
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Master´s Degree in Women´s Studies from University College Dublin. Elin’s interests include the sexualisation of women and girls, gender stereotypes and stereotypical portrayal of women and men in media. Some of Elin’s previous work can be found online at: The F-Word, XY-online, Sex Roles and Metapsychology Online.