"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Notes on a Double Standard

It's an odd coincidence that I saw Notes on a Scandal on the same day that I happened to read Jennifer Maher's essay, "Hot for Teacher," from the book Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine. I had my usual feminist-radar turned on while watching it, but having this essay (which deals with the gender dynamics of the student/teacher relationship) fresh in my mind colored nearly every aspect of my experience with this film. I could write full posts on each of its positives and negatives -- from the insightful exposure of beauty as a commodity and a privilege to the demonization of the older, lonely, covertly lesbian Barbara (Judi Dench) -- but the aspect of the movie that struck me the most was the relationship between Sheba (Cate Blanchett) and her fifteen-year-old student Steven (Andrew Simpson).

In her essay, Maher first points out the obvious. That

"...debates within academia and depictions in popular culture take as a given that what we talk about when we talk about teacher-student love is the love between male professors and female students,"

and that

"...the age-old gendered assumptions (male professor = predator, female student = victim) are so taken for granted that popular culture rarely touches on their reversal... That is, the expectation is that males are active and females passive, that men are the lookers and the women the looked at."

She really piques my interest, though, when she says:

"Rarely do we see a female teacher as a figure of desire for her male students without violent or potentially violent repercussions."

This resonated with me, because it made perfect sense. Unless the teacher is a dim-witted, short-skirted blonde dancing on a desk in a Van Halen video, any sexual relationship she has with a student is likely to contribute to her tragic downfall.

And Notes on a Scandal is no exception. Cate Blanchett's character is assaulted by the boy's mother, fired from her job, kicked out of her home, hounded by the press, and sentenced to prison; her actions pretty much ruin her life. Not that I'm defending her actions, of course, but the extent to which the movie followed Maher's description is striking. Not only that, but at no point in the story does Sheba get to play the part of the suave mentor seducing an innocent youth in her charge. In fact, it becomes painfully clear rather early on that the fifteen year old holds all the power in their relationship. Young Steven lures Sheba in with a feigned interest in art and lies about his home life, practically stalking her and seducing her into each encounter throughout their unsettling affair. At no point does she resemble his authority figure (or even his equal, for that matter). Instead, we only see her swooning at his romantic gestures and looking up into his eyes as if he has rescued her. Rather than mirroring the power dynamics of the stereotypical teacher/student relationship, their tryst mirrors a stereotypically patriarchal one. Even their "breakup" is on his terms. Adhering to "typical guy" protocol, Steven wants out of the relationship as soon as it gets complicated. He makes it clear to Sheba that he doesn't want the responsibility of being her escape from her problems and that he only pursued her in the first place because he "thought it would be fun". The audience is given the feeling that Sheba is in love with the smug boy, and that it devastates her to stop seeing him, but it's obvious that the sentiment is not returned.

So why does this double standard exist? Why is the seductive male teacher always portrayed as powerful and dominant (though not necessarily likable) while his female counterpart is stripped of her authority status and reduced to a lovesick and tragically doomed weakling? Jennifer Maher would say that it's just one more byproduct of male privilege. While it is natural for a female subordinate to both respect and be sexually attracted to her male superior, it is more likely for a male subordinate to deal with his attraction to his female superior by objectifying her. Sexuality tends to elevate the status of a male, whereas, for women, sexuality only diminishes her potential for respect.

"To put it more bluntly, though we might accept a woman as sexual (as long as she is heterosexual) and we might accept a woman in a position of authority, the two together at the same time is threatening to masculine privilege.
Here's the problem: For a female student, identifying with the man at the front of the classroom means gaining power in the form of knowledge, authority, and sexual possibility. For a male student, however, identifying with a woman means losing it. So while the female teacher can be looked at as sexually desirable, looking up to her is problematic."

Once again, Maher's description of the media's formula is right on target when it comes to Notes on a Scandal. Sheba is beautiful yet hopelessly never in charge, while Judi Dench's aged and stern (and therefore desexualized) character Barbara is shown to be authoritative and in complete control of her classroom. (Her power is later undermined in the film by the classic female-aimed insult of "no one likes you", but that's the starting point for an entirely different discussion.)

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