Gender Studies Helps Critical Thinking

So I’m about to conduct gender critique on GQ covers, but I’m also using them as my featured image. This makes me just as guilty of using sex to promote content. But whatever. I never promised consistency, just intellectual stimulation. (Trolls, you’re welcome for giving you some feminist hypocrisy to point out.)

Summer is usually a good time to reflect on and develop new lesson plans for the fall. It’s also a good time to drink margaritas at 11 am. Luckily, I can do both. (Or am I just making fun of stereotypes about professors having summers off? I’m really working my ass into the ground, as a matter of fact.) If you’re a college teacher in the humanities, then odds are you’ve at least thought about incorporating some attention to gender issues into your curriculum. True enough, you’ll encounter some resistance. After all, we’re just pushing a political agenda, right?

Wrong. When I teach gender issues, I’m not interested in making everyone think like me. I’m interested in giving students compelling pieces of writing to read and debate. I want them to go out and find evidence that contributes to our discussions. I want them to learn to see issues from multiple points of view. I also want them to develop healthier attitudes toward positions they may not support. That’s critical thinking–the big buzz word in education.

That’s why I usually spend at least  a week assigning readings on gender. It’s one of many topics we cover including the food industry, higher education, gun rights, taxes, reproductive rights, and so on. Some of my friends make vomiting gestures when I admit that we might even consider the cannabis legalization debate, or something as “tired” as euthanasia. They prefer to avoid these subjects. On the contrary, it’s precisely because early college students tend to approach these common topics reductively that we need to engage them, show them just how complex and nuanced these issues are.

For now, gender. I like to assign short pieces, for example an excerpt from Susie Orbach’s “Fat is a Feminist Issue.” I know what you’re thinking. Why would I possibly assign an essay that students are bound to misinterpret on a first read? Well, that’s exactly why I assign it.

About half my class thinks Orbach is pulling her argument straight from her ass at first. They reject the idea that the mass media is responsible for “women being fat.” So we read parts of the essay again and slowly, through questions and other students’ comments, they come to understand Orbach’s actual set of arguments:

  1. Although some people may be obese due to personal problems, we need to realize that many women succumb to anxiety generated by media–magazines, television, commercials, film. Cultural expectations play a factor.
  2. Everywhere we look, almost, we can find subtle arguments about how women should look and act.
  3. It’s not that hard to see why many women–and people in general–get stressed and develop a “screw you” attitude toward cultural pressures to look thin.

From there, we do some groupwork to investigate Orbach’s claims. I ask students to work in threes to identity patterns in popular forms of media online that both support and refute Orbach’s argument. Here’s an example of what we found. Exhibit A of Orbach’s point would be covers of GQ magazine:


Top Half: sexy women pretty much naked. Bottom Half: sexy men pretty much fully clothed.

Looking at these covers, we discuss whether depicting women’s bodies differently from men’s is inherently bad. I tend to say “not necessarily,” but the problem lies in the pattern of representation. I ask students to see if they can find even one cover of GQ that depicts a woman wearing a suit, or showing only her face. So far, nope. If you know of one, please send it my way because I’d like to frame it.

My studGQsCHUMERents and I also take some time to discuss audience. Obviously, GQ is a magazine designed by and for men. So it makes sense that they would depict women like this, right? After all, most (heterosexual) men of a certain age and demographic just love these images of women. This point leads to another question: Is it okay if a magazine like GQ represents women a certain way for a specific demographic? What influence does this magazine have on U.S. culture, if it’s read by Caucasian men in the upper-middle class? Is it the responsibility of such magazines to think about gender representation? Even if we agree that there’s an unhealthy pattern here, how do we address it? Is a healthy gender attitude worth more than freedom of the press? Would protesting GQ’s covers amount to censorship? My job’s to ask the questions, not give the answers.

As I revise this lesson plan, I’m seriously thinking about having my students this fall read about and analyze Amy Schumer’s GQ cover (above). Some feminists are mighty disappointed. As for me, I couldn’t be happier. Thanks, GQ. Without you, I probably wouldn’t have a job at all.




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