Discussions of Privilege

With the election results in, students seem more stressed this term than I’ve seen in previous terms (and I’ve taught through previous elections). As I’m grappling with helping Freshmen comp students see the relevance in a research essay for their academic careers and their future professional careers, I’m hearing junior writing students complain about long papers (because they’ll never write, ever after graduation *insert eye roll here*). I understand the mindset, as an undergrad who took as many writing courses as possible because I was told in elementary school i’d never excel at writing, I remember the funny looks when I mentioned how much writing I was completing. But I saw the value (and was promoted at work, finished a PhD because of that preparation). But…..this isn’t what students are living right now – so it’s no longer an effective approach.

As I was considering ways to help students through these last weeks of major projects, Frank Turner’s “We Shall Not Overcome” played on my Spotify list. Now usually I appreciate Frank Turner and his lyrical poetry, but I can’t deal with this song. And so, my tirade about privilege as I sift through ways of helping students understand writing to learn, while listening to a song by a writer who didn’t check his own privilege……..

I switched to Polar Bear Club’s “Our Ballads” where they wrote a song responding to a criticism that punk rock, and their band “alienates girls from boys.” While the alienation criticism has merit, I really appreciate PBC’s response. I feel it resonates with a lot of listeners:

“When I scream, it certainly isn’t for machismo.
Not intimidation or gender segregation
I just needed more from the words I sang but you can’t understand.”

Returning to Turner – my issue is the song is clearly written for men/male listeners, pushes heteronormativity, AND slut shames girls. All in less than 4 lines!

“The bands I like, they don’t sell too many records
And the girls I like, they don’t kiss too many boys
Books I read will never be best sellers, yeah
But come on, fellas, at least we made our choice, hey!”

I can appreciate the first line, the bands I like don’t sell many records either – I miss you Weakerthans! It’s the second and fourth line that reinforces accidental privilege in a way that is damaging. I’ll start with the fourth, it’s the easier line – pointing out your audience as nothing but fellas does “alienate girls from boys” (thanks PBC!). While this may not affect your record sales, when you discuss broken hearts, broken friendships, strong friendships, and memories how is the female portion of your audience supposed to understand the lyrics when you announce they are not your intended audience? In what ways are you damaging their emotional connection to your songs, or invalidating their emotions by singing to all the ‘fellas’ in the audience? You wonder why you wrote 16 songs and ended up alone (“Substitute”) – I think we’re starting to see the problem.

So the most problematic line telling all the fellas you only kiss girls who don’t kiss many boys creates a culture of slut shaming. Is it really your business how many boys the girl has kissed? Apparently it’s a dealbreaker for you. In what ways does this announce to the fellas listening to your song to similarly slut shame women for kissing (oh, but not women, never women, always girls. heaven forbid you treat women as equal by calling them women – P.S. here’s an article you NEED to read!) What you’ve done with these three lines is slut shame women, demoted them to just girls, and announced your audience as men only.

Yes, I understand this is one unfortunate song in a rather large catalog with many less problematic songs, and besides boycotting this song I won’t stop listening. So, why am I posting this rant……

A friend-of-a-friend on Facebook posted a response to the recent US election as a positive for good punk rock music. I agree but want punk to carefully consider their approach.

  1. There are many very good discussions of the whiteness of punk – let’s take this moment to address that! Create space and write songs that approach universalism in a different way (on a side note – this is an issue feminism has struggled with often and continues to struggle with so it won’t be easy!)
  2. There are issues with gender alienation. Stop the slut shaming!
  3. There are issues with heteronormativity. Celebrate all love!

I typically write about composition, teaching writing, technology and writing so I’ll bring my discussion back to these ideas and ideals. In justifying composition courses, Rhet/Comp instructors often discuss the ideas of writing to learn and learning through writing (a point i’m emphasizing in a forthcoming conference that was highlighted as a positive by a disciplinary faculty member, YAY!). A large part of this emphasis is critical thinking, and helping students engage with critical thinking. As citizens of democratic societies we need to continue to think critically and that may mean engaging in difficult discussions, critiquing aspects of our favorite singer/songwriters.  In this time of stress as holidays and finals make the semester difficult for my students I will continue to push their critical thinking in positive ways so they engage with this level of thought in all aspects of life. I will continue to stress the importance of rhetoric, composition and communication as foundational aspects of education for a healthy democracy. And I will listen to their random tangents (as I’ve clearly written mine), so they feel valued.




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2 responses to “Discussions of Privilege

  1. Morgan

    This is a great post, Dr. P. I am struggling with these same kinds of issues in the genre of country. There are so many hegemonic ideals in place that are so problematic. Even though the genre has transformed and evolved, it still presents ideologies of women in very specific ways from slut shaming to the southern ideals of who a woman “should” be. All genres should critically think about the way the approach gender! [but you already know that]. I have actually been struggling with my passion for country music and my political values because country music does lie more on the conservative end of the spectrum.

    You know I have always seen the relevance in writing and how important it is for students in all disciplines to practice their writing skills. If I am am fortunate enough to be selected for a graduate teaching assistantship, one of my goals will be to help students understand the relevance of writing in each of their majors and how writing will benefit them in post-grad life.

    • Thanks for responding Morgan! Our positions as feminist fans of music genres is difficult – solidarity in struggle! There are times it’s hard to justify continued listening while also critiquing to other fans. I think this is why i’m seeing so many connections to writing – as are you. Writing aids critical thinking, critical thinking development. Writing allows writers to create space for critique, while simultaneously allowing for enjoyment. I can enjoy the music, but still point out when it’s flawed. I can see and appreciate the movement ideals and then ask for them to incorporate even more into the ideal set.

      Country music is an excellent space for this. It’s a music heavily influenced by regions of the US, and it celebrates citizenship. Composition, the founding fathers, democracy as a theory of government all laud the principle that an educated citizenship leads to a healthy democracy, and educated citizens ask for more, they critique, they converse, they consider. So of course the educated fans of a music genre celebrating aspects of American values will bring these practices with them in the hopes of strengthening what they enjoy, of strengthening democracy. That’s our job as citizens. But, fandom seems to be understood differently.

      So, we’ll continue our fringe conversations, and we’ll educate our students to question, and we’ll make a difference from the grass roots!

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