Toxic Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet

BY: LIZ KEIPER

Sampson: ‘Tis all one. I will show myself a tyrant. When I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids—I will cut off their heads.

Gregory: The heads of the maids?

Sampson: Ay, the heads of the maids or their maidenheads. Take it in what sense thou wilt.

Gregory: They must take it in sense that feel it.

Sampson: Me they shall feel while I am able to stand; and ‘tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

-Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene I, Lines 20-28

*****

Are you shocked and offended yet? If not, you should be.

Let’s revisit this scene for the people in the back, which is by the way the opening scene to Shakespeare’s quintessential “love story” of Juliet and her Romeo—one of the most solid staples of both the canon and high school English curricula across America.

Yet, not 20 lines into the play, two Capulet servants, Sampson and Gregory start firing off the rape jokes.

Sampson and Gregory, in an effort to show their manly prowess, begin joking about how tough they are and what they would do to any Montague man that they came across, which is namely to fight him. Then they begin discussing their hypothetical treatment of Montague women and find it hilarious to make puns about how they will forcibly take these women’s “maidenheads” (virginity). But Sampson figures it’s ok because he’s a “pretty piece of flesh,” so though he presumably will be raping these women, they will apparently enjoy it because he’s irresistibly attractive.

Yikes.

This leading scene, and many others from Romeo and Juliet, have bothered me more and more each year that I’ve taught the play. I mean, Lord Capulet clearly emotionally controls both Lady Capulet and Juliet and even threatens that Juliet makes his “fingers itch” to beat her. Mercutio makes sarcastically sexual advances on the Nurse in order to demean her. Both the Friar and Romeo allude to love having made Romeo weak and “womanish,” as if weakness and femininity were synonymous.

Don’t get me wrong—I LOVE teaching Shakespeare. I look forward every year to the day I get to wear my Shakespeare leggings, show my students my Shakespeare rubber duck, and explain why my profile picture on our grading system says, “Shakespeare is My Homeboy,” and the answer is because Shakespeare is AWESOME. His ability to communicate complex and challenging themes in a rhetorically beautiful way indeed merits our study of his works.

However, to ignore the elephant in the play of gender attitudes would do harm in several ways.

First of all, if when teaching the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet I just shrugged off Sampson and Gregory’s horrific jokes, my students could come away thinking that it is socially acceptable to joke about an atrocity such as rape because, well, it was in a Shakespearean play, so it must be ok. Statistically speaking, I also know that there are survivors of rape in my classes every year, and they are watching to see how I react to these jokes when they come up in the play.

But second, I would miss an immense opportunity to show my students an important thematic aspect of the play, which is the connection between gendered oppression and the overall propagation of violence in the story.

Inspired by a presentation on the #DisruptTexts movement which I saw at the WVELA Conference in Morgantown, I decided to not just tell my students that viewing women in a subservient manner is unacceptable, but to tackle head on the topic of toxic masculinity in the play—both how it can be seen in the play and what the consequences are for all of the characters.

First, to introduce the topic, I showed my students the Gillette short film The Best Men Can Be. It is a touching 2-minute film that emphasizes the importance of the values that we pass down to our children, and it focuses on the values passed down to the future men of society. Will we teach our sons that their first solution to any problem should be to use their fists, or will we teach them that there are many times when interpersonal violence can be avoided? Will we teach our sons that to be “manly” they should view women as objects to be claimed and used as they please, or will we teach our sons the inherent dignity and value of the women in their life? After showing this to my students, we discussed the theme—what does Gillette want you to come away thinking after viewing this film?

Gilette

 

Next, to further clarify the concept of toxic masculinity, I found two articles on the topic which I excerpted and had my students read and annotate. One was from the American Psychological Association, and the other was from The Independent. After reading and annotating the articles, I had my students answer these three questions and discuss them:

  • Based on the above articles, define “Toxic Masculinity” in your own words.
  • List some negative characteristics that the writers of the articles claim would fall under the category of “toxic masculinity.”
  • What would the authors probably claim would be positive characteristics of healthy masculinity?

Documents for the activity can be accessed here:

Toxic Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet

Toxic Masculinity in Romeo and Juliet

We discussed, based on the articles, what “toxic masculinity” did refer to (i.e. defining masculinity in terms of hyper-violence, sexual dominance, or lack of emotion) and what it decidedly did not refer to (i.e. man-hating or defining any masculine trait as inherently “toxic.”)

You can be masculine

 

Then, to bring it full circle, I gave each table group a particular section of Romeo and Juliet which they had already read. Below are the sections I assigned with a short summary of what happens:

Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 7-29: Sampson and Gregory joke about the prospect of taking sexual advantage of Montague women to show dominance.

Act 2, Scene 4, Lines 88-126: Mercutio and Benvolio sarcastically make sexual advances toward the Nurse to show dominance.

Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 55-79: Mercutio calls Romeo weak for turning down Tybalt’s challenge to fight.

Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 102-129: Romeo chastises himself for being “effeminate” and turning down Tybalt’s challenge, then chases Tybalt down and kills him.

Act 3, Scene 3, Lines 108-158: The Friar demeans Romeo’s expression of emotion at the news of his banishment as “womanish.”

Act 3, Scene 5, Lines 141-204: Lord Capulet threatens to beat and disown Juliet if she doesn’t obey him and marry Paris.

I asked the students to re-read the section and answer these questions as a group about the section:

  • Summarize in a sentence what happens in your section.
  • How are character(s) in this section of reading showing toxic masculinity? Connect to something that you read in one of the articles.
  • How is this contributing negatively to other characters, society, or themselves? In other words, whom is their behavior primarily hurting? Explain.

toxic-men-WEB

In this light, Romeo and Juliet actually becomes the perfect avenue for addressing the topic of toxic masculinity. Not surprisingly, I did at first get pushback from some of my students on this lesson. As soon as I announced that we would be discussing toxic masculinity, because this is sometimes seen as a political or ideological trigger phrase, I could see on the faces of some students that they mentally set up walls against what I was going to say so as not to be taken in by my “feminist brainwashing.” When reading their questions responding to the articles, I saw some antagonism in that several students wrote to the effect that the authors of the articles wanted “men to stop being manly,” which is of course not what the articles are claiming and was simply a knee-jerk negative reaction to the overall topic.

However, digging into the play itself did more to teach my students about the harmful effects of toxic masculinity than the articles did by far. In analyzing the scene in which Lord Capulet threatens to beat and disown Juliet, my students wrote about how this disconnected Lady Capulet from Juliet and backed Juliet into a corner so that she felt that her only option was suicide. When analyzing the Friar’s condemnation of Romeo’s “womanish” behavior in his highly emotive reaction to the news of his banishment and separation from his wife, they wrote about how this contributed to his hasty decisions later in that he felt like he had to “man up” and that asking for help or guidance was un-manly. When analyzing Mercutio and Tybalt’s violent posturing in Act 3, Scene 1, they wrote about how this prevailing view of what it means to be a “real man” in Verona makes all the men feel like if they don’t jump to violence as their first option to solve a problem, they are weak, thereby feeding into the feud. And finally, in analyzing the degrading sexual jokes, my students wrote about how making a habit of dehumanizing women leads the men in this play to become comfortable with dehumanizing and demonizing the “other” side in the feud.

healthy-masculinity

Shakespeare’s own masterful story did the work for me on this one because those were exactly the concepts I wanted them to come away with. The sins of the fathers are surely visited on both the sons and the daughters in Verona when toxic masculinity becomes the norm that is passed from one generation to the next.

So, is it really disrupting a text if those themes are inherently in the text? And was Shakespeare actually a supporter of gender equality ahead of his time?

My response is, does it really matter what Shakespeare thought? As teachers of literature, we know that a work of art has a life greater than the perceptions or beliefs of the person who created it. If Romeo and Juliet is a story that reflects truth, then the themes will play out in a way that transcends culture, social construct, or time period. And whether this lesson is truly “disrupting” Romeo and Juliet itself or whether it is simply “disrupting” a traditional reading of Romeo and Juliet seems to me to be splitting hairs. I know that my students came away from this activity with a deeper understanding of the text, the relationships between the characters, the societal implications of their actions, and how it applies to our lives and culture today.

And that’s kind of the whole point of studying literature, right?

 

Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • How do you implement #DisruptTexts with Shakespeare, specifically with Romeo and Juliet?
  • What other connection activities would be helpful to teach about this concept in Romeo and Juliet?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

On Rebeholding the Canon and Reading-In

If my children believe they can disrupt the canon of their favorite pastime, how much more should teachers, as the adults in the room, grant ourselves permission to fill in the spaces with texts that challenge our students?

By Adrin Fisher

My two middle-school aged sons love videogames—but they don’t get to play as often as they’d prefer (which would be every single day).  To fill time between videogame sessions, they talk about videogames, read handbooks and record books and novels about videogames, and invent their own storylines for videogames.  One word they’ve adopted in the past year is “canon.” It’s not uncommon to hear them argue about whether this or that place is “canon” to The Legend of Zelda or if it is outside the “official timeline.”  As I type, in fact, they’re in a heated debate over the canonical placement of Netflix’s The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants vis-à-vis the Captain Underpants novels.  Somehow, the placement within “canon” is up for debate—at least in the minds of my creative children.

It occurs to me, then, that the notion of canon is in the eye of the beholder. 

It’s a list—but not one that we live and die by. 

It’s full of white, male writers—but with imagination and creativity we can expand. 

It’s come to be seen as prescriptive—but it’s ripe for discussion and challenge. 

If my children believe they can disrupt the canon of their favorite pastime, how much more should teachers, as the adults in the room, grant ourselves permission to fill in the spaces with texts that challenge our students? That reflect the modern world our students live in? That demonstrate diversity in terms of race, class, gender, and orientation?

On a gloomy day last February, I was lying on the couch scrolling through social media.  I caught a notice about a project sponsored by the Black Caucus of National Conference of Teachers of English called the African-American Read-In.  It is a simple proposition:  gather people to read out loud from the works of African-American writers.  The Read-Ins often occur in February to coincide with Black History Month.  I immediately decided to make this happen this at my school. 

I called a colleague in my department and a well-loved retired history teacher.  Coordinating with our administration, we decided to do the Read-In during the AA time built in to our Wednesday schedule.  We had students sign up to attend.

It was clear to me that the best way to run this Read-In would be to have students doing the reading—after all, they listen to teachers most of their day—so I sought out student readers.  I explained that all they had to do was read something.  Once.  No questions, no analysis, no discussion.  I encouraged my kids to choose poems.  Some had a favorite African-American writer.  For others, I printed out options.  I prepared a handout listing student readers and the pieces they had chosen.

On February 21, 2018, the readers sat on the edge of the stage. The house lights were dim and the spectators sat in the center section. 

It was breathtaking.

Fairmont Senior High’s 2018 African-American Read-In

High school students sat in awed silence as their peers read words from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Emi Mahmoud, Lucille Clifton, and many others.  One student in particular—Haikeem—started off shaky, unsure.  But by the end of “Still I Rise,” his voice rang out, filling the auditorium.  His classmates whooped. 

Many of the readers were African-Americans students, but not all.  Many of the spectators were African-American students, but not all.

This event was the first African-American Read-In in the history of Fairmont Senior—one of only two events in the entire state of West Virginia last year as listed with NCTE.   

Afterward, I opened my door for my 3rd period English 12 class.  Two students in that class had read.  Two students who had struggled through high school had volunteered to read out loud to seventy of their peers.  Two students—or, rather, many students—found power and belonging in reading out loud.  And their comment for me?

“Mrs. Fisher, when can we do it again?”

So, this year’s event is scheduled for February 27, 2019—and we’re looking to build on the success of last year to bring more students into this expansion of the canon.  Now, is one event enough?  Of course not. 

But it’s the notion of change, the idea that teachers have the freedom to expand the texts we highlight. 

We do it through intentional celebrations of diversity. 

We do it through silent reading time. 

We do it through our big, dog-eared, thrift-store-found classroom libraries.

We do it through the studied choice of mentor texts, hooking Paul Lawrence Dunbar to Shakespeare.

We challenge the canon while teaching the required texts—
and we rebehold (and recreate) the canon as we go.

You can read about the FSHS 2018 Read-In at WVNews.com.


WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. Interested in hosting a Read-In?  See how you can rebehold the canon by checking out NCTE’s toolkit page.   How do you bring diverse voices into the classroom?  Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not explaining the red #EndItMovement X on her hand, helping students appreciate Banquo’s advice to Macbeth, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her chatting with her boys, tree bathing, or pounding through a good novel. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

We Make Time for What We Value

By Karla Hilliard

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with a group of new teachers about active reading strategies and building a culture of literacy. In our afternoon breakout session, it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn toward the enduring, unanswerable question that haunts new and experienced teachers alike: How will we ever get through everything we’re supposed to cover?

And really, is this question only reserved for our classrooms? How do we, in our lives, get through everything we’re supposed to do? How do we fold the laundry, rock the babies, cut the grass, clean the bathrooms, and pay the bills?

How do we cover it all? It’s no secret that we don’t. Not all the time anyway. We do what we can and what is necessary when it is necessary. What I’m saying is our teaching, like our living, is not an item to tick off a list to mark as Done.

As I prepare for the clean page of another new school year, I remember the most important mantra I’ve ever learned as a teacher: We make time for what we value.

As I ready my syllabus and my classroom for another year of learning, I am not focusing on standards; I am focusing on values. Ultimately, it is these values that inform my teaching or what I “cover” in my classroom instruction, and I want to make sure that the time we spend matters.

So today I’m thinking about what I value in my classroom — the ways I’ve screwed up, how I’ve righted some wrongs, and the work I’ve still got to do.

I value relationships and being intentional about them.

Like any teacher, I have had my share of success stories. I have students who still write or call a decade or so later, students who have become friends—the kind you watch flourish into adults and people you genuinely want to be around, and students I admire and connect with so much I think, man, how do I get my own kids to grow into a person like this?

Two students from the Class of 2016 and I catching up before they head back to Duquesne and WVU.

And luckily, I have had classes that felt like family, ones I’ve wanted to teach until I retire.

There is no greater joy as a teacher than building genuine connections with students. It is the single thing that keeps me coming back to my classroom year after year after year.

But you know what? I’ve screwed up a lot, too. I’ve let kids get in and out of my door without knowing little more than their name and who they like to sit with. I’ve allowed students to remain closed off. This is despite my best lessons and most meaningful attempts at relationship. I’m not proud of this admission, but most teachers, if they’re being honest will tell you it happens.

Building relationships with students is work, and sometimes I need a reminder that it takes time, effort, energy, and consistency to build one that’s meaningful.

Recently I heard Dave Stuart Jr. on Brian Sztanik’s Talks With Teachers podcast, and Dave talked about a really simple tool he uses to track what he calls “moments of genuine connection.” It is simple and awesome, and it’s the push I need to be intentional about connecting with every kid.

Check out Dave’s post on his blog where he outlines what it means for a connection to be genuine and how you can keep track of them.

This year, I will make time for moments of genuine connection.

I value student choice and getting books into kids’ hands.

Last year, I threw the baby out with the bath water.

I had planned what I thought was my best year yet. I had essential questions and themes mapped out, anchor texts selected, and major assessments sketched out. After an incredibly rough go of To Kill a Mockingbird (more on that in a minute) and a mid-term student reflection where I learned that, essentially, my group of 80-some incredibly bright, high achieving students “hated,” “dreaded,” and “had no time for” reading, my heart broke for their former reader selves and for the teacher who’d diligently and naively overplanned for her students.

Although choice reading—or a “bookringer” as we called it, had long been part of my classroom, it didn’t have legs. What once served as a novel, no-strings-attached opportunity to read what you want devolved into a compulsory, obligatory routine that lacked the joy of real reading.

In short, I looked at my delicately planned curriculum and was like screw it.

With the help of our librarian extraordinaire, we began Semester 2 by speed dating books in our school’s media center. I fashioned a project called My Reading Life and leaned heavily on Penny Kittle’s Book Love philosophy and her workshop materials.

Students selected their own texts, kept page number charts, recorded Flipgrids, gave book talks, wrote papers, completed a project or two, and importantly, recommended books to one another. Some of the hits? The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, and A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines.

Other titles in the My Reading Life project included Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Karen Russell, The Martian by Andy Weir, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and even Othello, read by a young woman who is passionate about acting and theatre.

Speed dating in our media center

I can say with certainty that there is no way my students would have read the volume or complexity of texts they did had I not given them the choice and freedom to read.

This year, I will make time for real reading and student choice.

I value disrupting the canon.

I like to think that I’ve always had an awareness of the scope of voices I offer students in my classes. Diversity and inclusion were tenets of my university teacher program, and I was trained to “be aware” of balancing the syllabus with minority voices.

It wasn’t until I began teaching AP Literature that my awareness shifted to intentionality. In a course like AP Lit, it is easy to fall into the trap of “old dead white dude” literature and lean on the excuse of “canonical works.” I realized that it was up to me to shift our thinking and belief system of what is considered works of merit and literature worthy of study in our classroom. Because as my brilliant friend and #DisruptTexts co-founder Tricia Ebarvia said, “If literature introduces students to new worlds, whose worlds have we been ignoring?”

Some of #APLit18 with new contemporary poetry collections funded through a Donors Choose project.

By now, you’ve probably heard of #DisruptTexts. If you haven’t come across this hashtag it is some of the most critical and necessary work being done in education today. The mission of the Disrupt Texts movement “a crowdsourced, grass roots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve…[and] to aid and develop teachers committed to anti-racist/anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.”

I value this disruption, and I will make time for it. I like to think my syllabus has been inclusive and that I’ve had “an awareness” of the scope of voices I offer students, but the truth is, my awareness did not challenge the status quo, it maintained it. This year, I will make time to lean into, to listen, and to learn how I can create and help grow equitable, anti-racist/anti-bias classroom practices.

Go to the Disrupt Texts site here, read about the founders here and get involved in the Twitter slow chat #DisruptTexts beginning on Monday mornings. I know I’ll certainly be making time for it.

I value students finding their voice.

If there’s one thing I learned during the historic West Virginia teacher and public employee strike last winter, it’s that your voice is your own and it is powerful.

Helping our students learn that words have value and power is a lesson that will last them well beyond any standardized test. What I’m learning is — if students are going to discover their voices, they have to have time to find them. And that takes practice.

It takes lots of low-stakes opportunities to write. It takes mentor texts and exemplars. It takes freedom and risk taking. It takes feedback and some fatigue. And it takes passion. I have long been a fan of Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti, and every time I see one of them talk about passionately engaged student writers, like in their last book Beyond Literary Analysis,  I am inspired anew. It’s true that kids need be able to play the standards — the literary analysis essay, the research paper, the SAT essay, but as Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle point out in 180 Days, the narrative is undervalued in the classroom.

Some of my favorite ways my students have practiced writing and honing their voices include poetry blogs, food memory narratives, and daily notebook time.

Ashton’s poetry blog tag line

This year, I will make time for my students to tell their stories, to learn and grow from them, and to find their voices along the way.

I value being fully present.

Self care is an important topic among educators, and it should be. In order to be our best selves in the classroom, we need to experience our lives outside of it.

If you’re like me, your job isn’t just your job, but your passion, your hobby, and your life’s work. I love that about teaching, and most of the time, the lines between life and work blur. Most of the time, I’m OK with that. I enjoy writing, reflecting, running organizations like this one, organizing conferences, creating exciting experiences for my students, attending conferences, and connecting with fellow educators. I find value in these things. But sometimes I’ve got to pump the breaks and intentionally reconnect with other interests that bring me joy.

I’m a mom to two young daughters, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a church member, a person who has passions and curiosities that are both an extension of my classroom and unrelated to education at all. With each passing year, I realize more and more how precious time is and how vital it is that we teachers remember to be present in the lives we’re living. It is essential that we do so.

Author of Essentialism And McKeown asks, “What if…we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?”

When the papers pile too high, or my calendar becomes too full, I remind myself of this question.

I will make time for the person I am beyond my classroom.

My two girls. Photo cred Sam Dodson, baby sitter extraordinaire

WVCTE is wondering…What do you value? What will you make time for this year?

We’d love it if you left us a comment, tweeted us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connected with us on Facebook. We love hearing from you! 

Here’s to a meaningful school year. – Karla