Sunday, February 5, 2012

Teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Thinking about the Susan G. Komen Controversy

It’s been another busy week, and I just finished preparing tomorrow’s lecture on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s mostly autobiographical 1892 short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It’s a story I’ve taught many times, but now it seems more relevant than ever.

This time, I’m not teaching it as a creative writing model; I’m teaching it as part of a unit on motherhood and depression in my introduction to literature course. The course is populated almost exclusively by nursing majors, whose tight schedules demand that a special section of this universally required course be reserved for them. Not coincidentally at all, all but one of the nursing students are women. Thus, I not only design the course to try to appeal to their scientific sensibilities, combining texts that deal with illness, such as Gilman’s story, with articles in the sciences that serve to contextualize the literature, but also I try to squeeze in something about women’s social history. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the centerpiece of a unit that will go through Brooke Shield’s defense of her right to take medication for her post-partum depression against Tom Cruise’s public condemnation and wind up discussing how the women of Sex and the City 2 deal with marriage, motherhood, and menopause. I am hoping my students will come to understand how controversial the relationship of women is to the medical establishment, how inextricable sexual politics are from their mental and physical health issues.

Little did I know, as I was preparing the syllabus over the summer, how insanely relevant this discussion would become. The recent Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to pull support from Planned Parenthood in order to avoid funding abortions exploded into a controversy the likes of which I had not seen for a long time. The consensus was largely that the much-beloved, wildly successful “pink ribbon” organization had cruelly betrayed women. So vast was the outcry, that the Komen Foundation promptly reversed its decision, and many top officials resigned.

By far my favorite analysis of the controversy so far has been Amy Schiller’s wonderful article for The Nation.  In it, Schiller argues that the controversy should serve to remind us of the impossibility of depoliticizing women’s issues. She writes:

The past decades have seen the rise of a nominally apolitical marketing campaign masquerading as feminism, with Komen merely the most visible symbol. Komen aligns perfectly with what Linda Hirshman labeled “choice feminism”—a moral-relativist approach to feminism that tries to scrub the movement of politics and value judgments in favor of uncritical affirmation of all women’s choices.

The innocuous pink ribbon has done much to bring much-needed attention to the fight against breast cancer, but it is emblematic of the kind of feminist politics we have preferred since the turn of the century, what Schiller calls “’you go girl’ sloganeering.” In other words, let’s not fight over issues like abortion anymore, or nasty problems like the wage gap, child care, sexual harassment, or sexual exploitation. Let’s not focus on how our women politicians are reduced to fashion statements, let’s just rejoice that they exist. Let’s turn a blind eye to poverty, rape, and unemployment, and rally behind something we all can agree on, like fighting cancer.

And so, I have a classroom full of young women, born after the Third Wave, who have never questioned why all the nursing majors seem to be girls, or why they’ve been advised by teachers and parents to choose nursing instead of medicine because “it’s a good career for women,” while their brothers and boyfriends have not received similar advice.

Not much has changed since the last turn of the century, when Gilman went to the doctor:

What motivated the famous Dr. Mitchell to come up with such a treatment? Was it science? Or politics? The answer, of course, is both, and Gilman knew this fact we have forgotten since. She wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” deliberately to voice her protest against a misguided and prejudiced practice:

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
The little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate--so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.
But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.
It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.

And that, my dears, is the value of literature, and in particular of literature by women. My nursing students often chafe against this requirement to pass even a cursory introductory course in literature. Many new schools, in the race to provide fast, specialized degrees, bypass any kind of liberal arts conventions and do away with requirements in the humanities for science students. That is just as ignorant, however, as walking around pretending that fighting breast cancer is an apolitical endeavor. When we crank out doctors, nurses, lawyers, politicians, scientists, and economists who live in the delusion that science is abstract from the subjective, messy world of politics, we risk creating a society just as narrow-minded as Columbus’s or Copernicus’s, in which “scientific truth” had become so unquestioned that to contradict it was heresy. My nursing students are not likely to take another course in which they question the sociopolitical implications of the standard practices of their chosen field.

Too racy?
Does no one remember that “the personal is political”? Apparently not, and one reason why we might have forgotten is how little we look to the past for the answers to the present, and future. Not only are we constantly called upon to defend the continued teaching of the arts, to explain their “usefulness,” but also when we do teach them, we often teach feel-good, uplifting works devoid of politics and conflict. “No one seems to even have read The Great Gatsby in high school anymore,” my husband, my fellow crusader, was complaining the other day. “Too much booze and sex and cars,” I kidded. But I wasn’t really kidding. How often do we back down from teaching something that could potentially be objectionable?

The result is that we have produced a couple of generations now of extremely naïve young people, people who have never seriously thought about sexism, racism, violence, or similar subjects on adult terms. People to whom activism is defined as choosing what color ribbon to wear or brand of yogurt to eat.

The Komen controversy proves that not only can we not keep politics out of activism, but also that taking a political stand has officially become suicidal. Right after they reversed the decision to split with Planned Parenthood, rumors surfaced that the Komen Foundation planned to produce a pink handgun for a new campaign. They denied the rumors, but the fact that they cropped up in the first place is an indication of how serious a blow they have taken to their image. The fact that they went back on their decision hardly seems to matter. The next time some public organization is confronted with the option of taking a stand on either side of an issue, the Komen controversy will serve as an example of how foolish that is.

It’s a pity. Issues don’t go away just because we ignore them. Silencing of any sort is wrong; that’s what’s killed feminism, this pressure to shut up on all but the most banal of you-go-girl statements. Meantime, I’m teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Maybe, when one of my students has a baby, and someone tells her that her inability to sleep and her paralyzing anxiety are “all in her head,” she might remember that stupid class she was forced to take, and question where this advice is coming from.

1 comment:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...