I was asked by Laurenn McCubbin, the curator of the show Feminist/Las Vegas which opened at the Barrick Museum last night, to write a presentation for the opening reception of the exhibition. The show is intended as a reaction to the casual sexism that is the bread-and-butter of Vegas tourism and nightlife. Since my interaction as a feminist with Las Vegas occurs first and foremost in the classroom, I decided to write about being a male Women’s Studies professor, and how that effects both my students perceptions of me and the rest of my day-to-day life. This, then, minus any on-the-fly edits I might have made in the performance, is what I ended up saying.
I hear a gasp behind me as I step through the cluster of waiting students and unlock the classroom door. Up until just that moment, I was just some guy, another student maybe, or some other professor. But when I step up to the door and swipe my key card, it comes clear: I’m the professor. The Women’s Studies professor.
The dude Women’s Studies professor.
That “gasp” is one of the main reasons I do this. The way gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other topics covered under the Women’s Studies umbrella are thought about by the mainstream public is in terms of difference from the dominant group: “gender” means “women”, “sexuality” means “gay”, “race” means black, Hispanic, Asian, maybe Native American, and so on. I felt it was important for someone straight outta the normative center — white, middle class, straight, male, and so on — to stand in front of a classroom and say “Hey, these things apply to us. Gender applies to men, race to whites, sexuality to straight people.” I felt that it was important to show that the struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, ableism, classism, and all the other -isms Women’s Studies concerns itself with was not just the struggle of the oppressed but of the privileged, that a society that worked only for us and not for the least among us was not a society worth living in.
I knew going into it that a lot of students would be shocked, even put off, by having a male Women’s Studies professor. And I’ve learned to relish those moments of friction between their expectations and my reality. But it does help to have a sense of perspective if you’re a man teaching Women’s Studies, or indeed, if you’re a feminist man at all.
I’m not talking about the apparently perpetual debate over whether a man can be a feminist or not. I don’t care about that debate — it’s a stupid, petty conflict that boils down to semantics, and frankly I have more important things to worry about. No, the oddities of being a male Women’s Studies professor and a feminist man have been more about the ways – both negative and seemingly positive — that men who try to live and work feministly are seen by others..
For instance, I despise the cliché that men get into Women’s Studies to “pick up chicks”. It’s an obvious way of minimizing the importance of the issues Women’s Studies covers and a none-too-subtle defense mechanism against the threat to male privilege posed by feminist men.
The thing is though, that being a Women’s Studies professor does indeed appear to have helped me pick up women. It’s like the single man at the grocery store pushing a toddler in the basket — everyone thinks he must be the greatest father in the universe, women fawn over him. I’ve actually had men tell me about random women approaching them in stores when they were with their kids and just saying, apropos of nothing, “you’re such a great father.” That this does not happen to women hardly bears mentioning.
Teach a Women’s Studies course with a penis and you’re a fucking hero. There’s a level of admiration afforded you that I guarantee my female colleagues do not receive. And they really ARE heroes — I’m just some schlub who knows a lot about gender, race, and class, while many of my colleagues have spent entire careers on the front lines of the battle for their own equality. Teach Women’s Studies without that penis and you’re a bitch, a feminazi, a hairy-legged man-hating dyke. But walk in packing penis and suddenly you are sooooo courageous.
At least to a certain kind of woman. To another kind I’m clearly gay, but let’s face it, outside of the classroom my path doesn’t intersect with that kind of woman very often, certainly not in a potentially-romantic context. But both takes are grounded in the same set of misconceptions: the idea that issues of gender, race, and class are only properly the concern of people in subjugated groups. That the Mighty White Man should deign to bestow his attention on the plight of his inferiors is commendable.
The dark flipside to this pedestal-balancing is what happens when it inevitably comes tumbling down. Relationships end all the time, of course, and rarely without anyone getting hurt, but I think I’m among a small cadre of gentlemen who have heard the phrase “But you’re a Women’s Studies professor” as part of that unfortunate process. Apparently, if you’re a man who teaches Women’s Studies, if you’re a man who identifies as feminist, then you are a hero and wouldn’t ever do anything to hurt anyone ever.
And I get it, kind of. As a feminist man I am painfully aware of how male power and male privilege works. As a man, sex has few consequences for me; for my partners, on the other hand, sex comes with a potential social and psychological cost. What’s more, I’m aware of how much power women give men in determining the progress of their relationships — a situation that it would be easy to take advantage of, and which, to be honest, I’m often not entirely sure I’m not taking advantage of.
Which brings me back, at last, to the classroom. Because aside from a few hard cases, aside from a handful of young women who have, somewhere along the way, picked up some pretty hardcore separatist-leaning feminist ideas, students hand a prof with a penis — even a Women’s Studies prof with a penis — a free pass. My worst semesters, times when I was overworked and distracted and going through all manner of emotional hardship, times when I was hard-pressed to bring even my C-game to class, I’ve still received almost unanimously glowing evaluations from my students. I would sit in faculty meetings while all my colleagues aired grievances about the hard times their students gave them, listening without any comprehension because my worst students, the ones that hated me to the very core of my being, were a breeze.
It’s not because I’m a great professor. I’m a good professor, or at least not any better a professor than any of my colleagues, all of whom I’ve learned from over the years. A big chunk of my success with students comes from simply this: I’m privileged. I’m a white, middle-class, straight male teaching in a department composed largely of women, many of whom are minorities, immigrants, lesbians or bisexual, and/or daughters of the working class. Teaching Women’s Studies for me has been a daily exercise in Recognize Your Privilege, even as I work, every semester, to undermine that privilege.
I realize I’ve left open the main question of this exhibition, which is what does it mean to be feminist in Las Vegas, a city built on a bedrock of female objectification. But I don’t know how to answer that question. This is the only city I’ve ever taught in, the only place I’ve ever so closely identified myself with the practice of feminism. So I have no frame of reference. Would I face more resistance from a population less bludgeoned by Vegas’ unique blend in-your-face sexuality and mainstream blandness? Does Vegas help me out by offering up a never-ending stream of “lookee here” examples right in my students’ backyards? Or are my students so inured to objectification, or so enamored by the glamour of their hometown, that I work twice as hard as I’d have to anywhere else?
I don’t know. What I do know is that nowhere else in the country are the contours of American gender and sexuality drawn in such bold strokes. Nowhere else are the contradictions of our church-loving, gun-totin’, fear-of-an-all-black-planet-having, train-pulling, poverty-stricken, tax-cutting, illegal-alien-hating, Spanish-speaking, gay-baiting, cross-dressing, slut-shaming, porn-watching, social climbing, education-defunding, pro-life, abortion-having, anal-probe-fearing, abstinence-only-educating, STI-spreading society so starkly visible than right here in Vegas Valley. And if you’re like me, and those contradictions fascinate and terrify you in about equal parts, I can’t think of any better thing to be than the dude professor in the contradictionest discipline of them all.