Teaching About Gender Roles: International Women’s Day 2017

When I was living in Bangkok I wrote a blog about women in Thailand and the differences between expat/immigrant women and local women, and how they are treated and perceived. Now I live in Krakow and I thought I would make a similar post about women in Poland. However, Poland is a completely different country in terms of history and culture, and so it does not have the same thoughts or structure as my previous post.
From having been teaching here for three months I have been able to make some surprising cultural observations. Despite the country’s recent history, the people of Poland can be quite racist and homophobic, to a level I was not expected. It was because of this that I felt somewhat hesitant to introduce gender roles into my classes, fearing that my students (aged thirteen to nineteen) would have a similarly old-fashioned approach. Luckily this time I was presently surprised.
In Poland, Women’s Day is celebrated to the same extent as Valentine’s Day is in the UK. Men and boys, at home and at school, buy flowers or other gifts for the women and girls in their lives to show them that they are appreciated. I have been told that the same happens in November on Men’s Day where women give gifts and show appreciation to men. It was a lovely day.
What did surprise me during the debates about gender roles was the sheer number of women who didn’t identify as feminists nor have feminist values. I noticed that the younger girls that I had were more inclined to feminist thoughts and opinions, and that often it was the older ones who didn’t, though I don’t know how much this observation applies elsehwere outside of my school!
Many eighteen and nineteen year old girls told me, and the class, that girls and women are all better at housework, and so should be required to do all the housework for their families, and that men should only have to do it if they want to. All of these girls are well-educated and planning to go to university next year, and I was surprised that such well-educated students still believed so strongly in traditional male and female roles.
I also noticed how often the boys in my classes completely ignored or disregarded the girls’ opinions. Ironically, one of my girls said “women are better listeners” and she looked at the boys for a response and not one of them was listening to her! I frequently heard scoffs such as “well, she’s a feminist so she would say that” as though feminists ought not to be listened to. 
I also witnessed some of the worst cases of mansplaining I’ve ever seen. I had thirteen year old boys explaining to me and the girls in the class that men are more suited to manual work because they all have bigger hands, which is why women should stay at home and do the housework. Did they forget that housework is manual? In a couple of classes I had boys explain that men and women are equal, and that we shouldn’t even be having the conversation! Perhaps in some countries around the world this is increasingly becoming the case, but largely speaking in Europe men and women are not socially or culturally equal. For men and women to be absolutely equal, women would have to be represented more in governments and industries, and men in more traditionally feminine positions. 
Many of my students felt strongly about these issues, but a lot of them didn’t. When I asked them to contribute to class discussions or I asked for their opinions, they nearly always sided with the person who was the loudest and most charming, and often this meant that the majorities were those who disagreed with feminist ideals. 
I don’t want it to sound all bad. Sexism in Poland is much less of an issue than either racism or homophobia. Many of my students, boys and girls, challenged the ideas of traditional gender roles.
“Men are managers and women are shop assistants.” 

“Why?”
“Science fiction isn’t for girls.”

“Why?”
“Women are just good at housework and men aren’t.”

“Why?”
Why?

These ideals are of course not specific to Poland, I just thought it would be interesting to compare what I have found to what I saw happening in Thailand.

Toxic Masculinity in Breaking Bad

Firstly I just want it known that I have not finished watching this series yet, and I am currently nearing the end of season three. These are my observations from what I have seen so far.

Earlier today I was trying to think how to explain what Breaking Bad is and what it’s all about, when it occurred to me that I could sum it up in two words: toxic masculinity. What is toxic masculinity? I would define toxic masculinity as a perspective on culutre and society that shows men as being aggressive, emotionally indifferent, and powerful. For me, the series is about men trying, sometimes succeeding yet often failing, to live up to these impossible standards.

When we meet Walter in the very first episode, he is clearly portrayed as weak. He has a loving family and a stable job (as a teacher, which is often seen as a more feminine job), though he feels seemingly inferior to other men around him. To Walt, being able to provide financial stability in excess for himself and his family is more important than the more ‘feminine’ ideals of a happy family life and steady job. Clearly, manliness is defined by money and power, and often money leads to power. Saul memorably says to Walt that a real man provides, whether he is respected/loved or not, just because he is a man. 

When Walt is first diagnosed with cancer he tries to hide it from his family, so as to not be seen as weak. He later refuses charity from Elliot and Gretchen for fear of being seen as less of a man, and feeling inferior to his old friend. Walt feels as though he deserves a fortune similar to Elliot’s and makes it his goal throughout the series to achieve that, by whatever means. He does not want to feel as though he owes Gretchen and Elliot. He feels as though he has failed both himself and his family, by not having the same finances, and does not want to be in Elliot’s debt for fear of losing even more of his masculinity. 

Hank’s character is used to counteract Walt’s, especially early on in the series. Hank is clearly physically stronger than both Walter and Walter Jr, both of whom suffer illnesses, and he also has a traditionally more masculine job in the police force. He is loud, and brutish, and commands more attention than Walter. Though Hank does not know who is behind it, he is in a constant battle for power – Hank uses his strength, and Walt his wit. Both Walt and Hank cannot have power at the same time. As “Heisenberg” gets more successful, Hank starts to lose power and respect. For Walt, gaining power means taking it from others, and I think this is an especially dangerous aspect of toxic masculinity because everything becomes a competition. To gain power means to take it from others. When Hank avoids death or injury in El Paso, he is seen as weak and vulnerable. When this vulnerability comes out his life starts to fall apart. Hank also never confronts or accepts the PTSD which he is suffering after having witnessied the bomb in El Paso (amongst other things) and his need to always convey a fully masculine front prevents him from recovering emotionally. This is also damaging and we see all the ways in which it affects Hank.

Arguably Jesse is the most feminine of our main male characters. He cares a lot for children, and is seen crying more than once. These are both feminine traits. Jesse is constantly trying to live up to the masculine ideals surrounding him but he is frequently suffering because of this. His inability to reach the impossible heights of the portrayal of ‘real masculinity’ here makes him unhappy and lose everything in the process of trying. Jesse struggles the most to inflict violence on others, and I think, because masculinity promotes violence when a quest for power is concerned, Jesse is seen by other men as weak.

Toxic masculinity is at its most obvious in a memorable scene with Hank, Walter and Walter Jr, where Walter is insisting that sixteen year old Walter Jr can drink tequila with them. Hank tries to stop him from drinking too much, but Walter, sensing defeat, encourages Walter Jr to drink more so that he does not lose face. It’s a power struggle between Hank and Walter. Ultimately, Walter Jr continues drinking – an apparent victory for Walter – but then vomits into the pool, showing once again how dangerous it is to try to maintain masculinity in this series. 

I also want to mention language here in the form of Jesse’s favourite word – bitch. This word is often reserved for insulting women, but it gets thrown about a lot in this series. I wonder if this traditionally female insult is used to reduce the men to being more feminine? Suddenly their power decreases when they are compared to women. Men do not want to be compared to women here and it is clear that they see themselves as completely separate.

As the series continues, I am led to wonder if Walter is really doing everything for his family, or if he does it in order to fulfil his position as a man in society. I think he feels as though he is failing to be a ‘man’ when we first meet him, and I think this is more important to him than providing for his family. After all, his friend Elliot would have been able to help his family if they needed it. It is more about Walter’s ego than his finances. Is Walter a ‘man’ now because he is powerful? He is certainly more powerful but he is absolutely not a better person for it. 

Finally, do you think that Breaking Bad is a critique or a celebration of masculinity? 

I’m going to watch until the end and see!