Feminism, Beyonce & Masculinity – Academic Courses Inspiring Youth To Change Culture

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Many of us can remember a time sitting in school, wishing we were far away from math class and instead rocking out to our favorite music. Perhaps some of us even managed to sneak in a Walkman (yes, it was THAT long ago for us!) and listen to our favorite artist instead of paying attention to the teacher at the front of the class. But what if there was a way to combine BOTH things?

The good news is, there are a number of schools which are bringing pop culture into the classroom and incorporating it into lessons that can help shape and equip a student to deal with real world issues. That’s not to say science, math, English etc isn’t important, but it’s good to see certain institutions recognizing that a valuable education has to go beyond just the intellect, and include information about issues that most people in this world end up facing at some point in their life.

Let’s start with the University of Texas at San Antonio which is offering a new class focusing on Beyonce, her ‘Lemonade’ album, and ‘Formation’ video, as a way to discuss the intersection of race, gender and pop culture.

Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, and English professor, is teaching “Black Women, Beyoncé, and Popular Culture”, and Complex.com shared a description of the class:

Beyoncé Knowles’ 2016 audiovisual project, LEMONADE, has become a movement. Professor Harry M. Benshoff, a film scholar at the University of North Texas, proclaims that Beyoncé got the entire world to watch a 55-minute avant-garde film. LEMONADE is a meditation on contemporary black womanhood. The purpose of this class is to explore the theoretical, historical, and literary frameworks of black feminism, which feature prominently in LEMONADE. We will use LEMONADE as a starting point to examine the sociocultural issues that are most prominent in black womanhood through black feminist theory, literature, music, and film.

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The class will not just consist of students listening to the music, as the professor expects students to fully engage and participate in discussions.

“I have students contacting me and asking me questions about so many things—especially black feminism and theories of black womanhood. The course will be new, fun, and exciting—but I expect my students to come in hungry for knowledge and open to new theories about race and gender in popular culture,” she told Michelle Mondo at Sombrilla, the UTSA Magazine.

In a time when race has become an issue that is heightened by the current US presidential election, and the ongoing discussion of racism in light of police brutality toward black men and women, the choice to use Beyonce as a catalyst is interesting and important. Whether it is her Super Bowl performance being criticized by some accusing her of being “too political” (when has music and artistry NOT been political?!?) or her choice of outfits and lyrics, Beyonce has never shied away from using her music to shed light on greater cultural issues and struggles in the black community.

This is not the first school using Beyonce’s work to open discussion about race and gender. Rutgers University was offering a “Politicizing Beyonce” class taught by Women’s and Gender Studies lecturer Kevin Allred. In an op-ed for the Washington Post in 2014, Kevin argues the point that instead of schools and universities only using historical figures in their lessons, why should culture be studied as it is happening?

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His aim was to do a deep dive into black feminism, and do a side-by-side comparison of how Beyonce’s music works in direct relation to the work of feminist authors such as Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. He began teaching the class in 2010, until it was cancelled in 2015 with some claiming the pushback against the curriculum stemmed from a misunderstanding of how a celebrity can be a legitimate way to engage in ideas about race, culture and politics.

Frankly, these are the kind of course that can help the youth of today become leaders of tomorrow readily equipped with knowledge and empathy in ways that cannot always be taught in traditional classroom settings, from the media, or even from parents. How are we ever going to be able to understand those across the divide from us unless we allow discussions like those facilitated in an academic setting?

There are many divides we face today across the US and the world. The gender divide is one that has been raging since the dawn of time and is seeing a renewed focus with the advent of social media and digital technology pushing feminism into the 21st century.

Feminism today is helping to break down unhealthy, narrow ideals about femininity, sexuality, and masculinity. Unlike previous iterations of feminism and the women’s rights movement, today a vital organ of the feminist body politic is how men factor into the the movement and how it benefits them.

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In September, Duke University’s Women’s Center began a program for men called the Duke Men’s project. The aim was to discuss the intersectionality of masculinity and feminism.

While there has of course been push back against the class, the organizers are adamant they are not trying diminish men from defining themselves the way they want nor are they ignoring biological differences between genders.

“The program was started as a way to engage men in working towards gender equality by encouraging men to discuss issues surrounding male privilege, such as rape culture, the language of dominance, pornography, gender diversity and intersectional feminism,” describes Amber Montgomery for Pittnews.com.

“Programs like our own are liberating for everyone, including men, since we encourage healthier alternatives to toxic masculinity that allow for more emotional expression, alternatives to violence and healthier relationships,” said Alex Sánchez Bressler, one of the leaders in the course.

The healthy way to truly move gender equality forward is to listen to why a number of men and anti-feminists feel threatened by a course like this. The course leaders don’t want men to feel that a discussion about masculinity means they need to abandon the traits they hold dear, but it should also be about opening up the range of definitions in regard to what being a man looks, sounds, and acts like.

“To understand this as an attack on men entirely misses the point. Feminism isn’t so much about men and women as it is about the unconscious understanding that what is “feminine” is weak and trivial, and what is “masculine” is strong and assertive. Just as there are dangerous stereotypes about what women should and should not do and be, this binary between masculinity and femininity also creates unfavorable stereotypes for men,”‘ writes Amber.

A lot of our personal concepts around race, identity, sexuality, morality etc is instilled in us from a young age so it is important to see these kinds of academic discussions happening not just at a graduate level, but a school level also.

Vice.com’s Alice McCool visited a private school in the UK and sat in on a class teaching pre-teen boys about feminism. Her description of the experience was eye-opening and exciting to see a glimpse of what the future may look like. These young boys discuss stereotypes, objectification in advertising, pop culture messages, and take part in quizzes about their thoughts on men and women. These classes are facilitated by male volunteers from the GREAT initiative, a charity that trains men to go to schools and teach boys about gender issues.

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Topics such as violence and sexual consent are also part of the conversation, and clearly it is something these young boys are already aware of through the media they consume.

“If a boy and a girl are going to a party and the boy asks the girl beforehand if she would like to have sex later, and she says yes, and then they both get drunk and they have sex, it’s fine,” says one boy. Another references Justin Bieber lyrics: “What do you mean? / When you nod your head yes / But you wanna say no.”That song, he says, has a conflicted message. “The girl in the song hasn’t given him consent, but she also hasn’t said, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ It’s confusing, the way it works.”

Part of the class involves the boys creating a “man box” where they are asked to outline what the stereotypical expectations of masculinity are, and they have a chance to “rebuild” the box with their own parameters based on what they have learned.

This is the kind of academia we need to see more of. We’ve previously shared about other high school teachers around the world who are bringing feminism into their classrooms to raise awareness about the issues affecting today’s culture. If we had a gender studies mandate in every school, we dare to say we’d see far less violence, misogyny, rape, harassment, bullying and hurt people expressing themselves in negative ways because they don’t feel safe with their vulnerabilities.

For those who don’t have proximity to a class like this we highly recommend watching Dr. Jackson Katz’s TED Talk on teaching men to stand up against gender violence, or Jen Siebel Newsom’s ‘The Mask You Live In‘ documentary (same filmmaker who created ‘Miss Representation’).

Whether it’s a Beyonce university course discussing race and politics, or a high school program helping young boys avoid the narrow social programming of toxic masculinity, the academic world has a great opportunity to help raise up youth that will shape our culture for the better.

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