Defying Gravity: A Wicked Feminist Pedagogical Journey through Oz
“Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes: and leap!
It’s time to try
I think I’ll try
And you can’t pull me down!”
(Cote, p. 161)
By William P.
To unsettle the core of anything from our planet to our hears to our solar system to our thoughts to a comet to our bodies to our histories to our spirits, so that the ripple effects rupture that once so-called solid ground is to defy the laws of gravity that seek to bind us, our world, and our lives together into some unchangeable, static, as-is whole. To defy gravity is a wicked act worthy of our learning in Feminist Pedagogies and one that not only helps demystify the many fragmented issues and assumptions we studied, but one that ruptures, decenters, shifts, and pushes against the spaces in which we live. This resulting critical faultline (Villaverde, 2010) is a new space of expression and inquiry where one can explore and begin to synthesize feminist educational theories with one’s own pedagogy in the classroom and as a lived experience.
Opening song from Wicked
In analyzing my own precarious space and where I stood and stand on the edge of rupture after a summer semester reading, listening, creating, thinking, enacting, and reflecting on feminist educational theory, I found myself sitting in Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte, North Carolina experiencing the Broadway musical Wicked. In considering a critical synthesis of such a transformative few weeks immersed in feminist pedagogy, I could ask for no better text to serve as a metaphorical detour, example, and current image of the intersection of pop culture, language and disability than Wicked. The show not only serves at a metaphor for my own wicked journey through the often Oz-like realms of feminist pedagogy (Oz-like meaning wondrous, unexpected, magical, and mystical), but Wicked as a text illustrates many of the feminist pedagogical ideas we’ve studied that lead us to question our thoughts and actions.
Who is really wicked? Why? Who says so? What does it mean to be wicked? And what does wicked have to do with feminist pedagogy, much less the intersection of disability, language and pop culture? A simple Google search reveals common definitions of wicked: morally bad in principle or practice; sinful; having committed unrighteous acts; extremely bad or unpleasant; highly offensive; likely to cause harm; and arousing disgust. I like to be wicked in my own life, however, I prefer a more complex definition that avoids the limitations of a simple dichotomy between good and evil. Villaverde (2008) explains that society tends to use “dichotomies…while ignoring the continuum…we tend to seek rather simple explanations for complex phenomena without truly studying the forces that produce these conditions” (p. 1). Villaverde writes that society reduces dichotomies of dis(ability), race, gender, sexual identity, class, culture, and language to terms of disabled or normal, black or white, queer or straight, and I would add wicked or good, and in that process ignores a key thread of feminist theories – power and its owners (p. 1).
Glee season premier television ad
Why lump wicked and good into other bifurcated categories problematized by feminist pedagogy? Because to me being wicked is a tool of the border dweller who lives, works, and plays in the blurry, messy, pushed up, fractured spaces between the dichotomies society hands us. Being wicked is a tool I use (and would like to use much more in my own daily lived enactment of feminist pedagogy) to play the role of the mythical trickster, to “search for ways to understand what is known, what is privileged and marginalized, who they are [I am] as a result, what responsibility they [I] have in instigating and producing change, and how they [I] may provoke others to get involved” (Villeverde, p. 106). I think of myself as a border dweller because of many narrative experiences that place me walking the tight-rope lines between the dichotomous worlds of race, gender performance, dis(ability), class, religion and sexual identity. My skin is the lily-white variety of my Irish heritage, but I grew up attending a predominantly black elementary school, hanging out with black friends, and pledging a traditionally African-American fraternity. Society defines me as male (as do I with all the limitations it entails, and my own growing, fluid definition of how that is enacted), but my gender performance by society’s standards is queer by my non-breadwinning, raising-the-babies, diaper-changing, house cleaning, child-caring and pet-plant-people nurturing performance as my female spouse’s stay-at-home partner. My family’s income allows us a comfortable middle-class status that must be negotiated in interactions among most of my relatives who not exist in such comfort. Whether negotiating these or other categories such as dis(ability), sexual identity, or religion/lack thereof, I and my immediate family, find ourselves as border dwellers that employ a variety of feminist pedagogical tools to increase our own agency as we negotiate these complex borderlands. One of those tools is being a wicked trickster.
Being a wicked feminist trickster in this spirit allows me to write, question, speak, act, and research “to induce cognitive dissonance, dislodging our attachment to the ways things are, to the status quo…unlocks hybridity, potential, and creativity through extensive critique and analysis” (p. 106). There is no better example of how this works in my life, and where I can continue to improve, than my own pedagogy in my classroom. The definition I prefer of wicked is “naughtily or annoyingly playful, going beyond predictable or reasonable limits, of exceptional quality or degree” (Merriam-Webster, 2010). I try to do this in how I live, how I act, how I am. I playfully try new things and encourage others to do so, in my classroom, and in my everyday pedagogy as a parent, friend, spouse, neighbor and relative.
Promotional ad and opening of an episode from Glee
This form of wickedness might take the form of naughtily throwing out a standard curriculum to replace it with one based on a metaphor of a video-game, or writing a Blackboard post beyond reasonable in terms of being open and emotional, or composing a paper or lesson plan of exceptional quality and quantity that goes beyond the expected limits, my own and otherwise. It means taking my six-year-old son to accompany me to an activist film event featuring openly queer, gay, and lesbian couples on screen (and in the attendance), and being ready an honest and open dialogue afterward his first “open” event, then realizing his only questions afterward revolve around getting permits to protest. It means constantly reflecting on my life, actions and pedagogy not only through assignments in my graduate work, but by journaling, painting, writing poetry, and planning downtime to think, ponder, and operate the backburner on low, all to feed my personal praxis. It means confronting inequity, injustice, and discrimination when I see it and experience it from my undergraduates using the phrases “that’s retarded” or “that’s so gay,” to lobbying legislators through my work with disability advocacy organizations. My agency grows as I work to increase the agency of others. The theoretical tools of feminist pedagogy are powerful ways to unveil the power structures operating behind the social justice issues important to me and my advocacy work as a teacher, parent, and human being.
I’ve realized that I work well in certain areas such as Sasaki’s challenge to decolonize classrooms into spaces where openings “not only let difference in but also let knowledge out” (p. 51) and in my praxis reimagining myself “incomplete, as work[s]-in-progress, as [a] multiple and contradictory subject[s]” (p. 52). I continue to transform my facilitating of learning in class to forefront typically hidden cultural capital of my marginalized students by selecting queer texts, reading the work of marginalized folk, and allowing ways of expressing knowledge outside of verbal and written expression – this lets the difference in. I must continue to find ways to do this by incorporating a more dangerous dialogue with and among my students so that we all can learn in Sasaki’s “third-space or borderland” where “we have the greatest opportunity to hear both the unspoken and unspeakable knowledges” (p. 44). This third-space is the uncomfortable dialogue of “otherness” and “privilege” that I must continue to forefront in studying mass media, which is ripe with the reinforcement not only of dichotomies, but with maintaining current power structures. In class this summer we explored many practical pedagogical ways of addressing these issues and I will adapt many of these to my own classroom from the privilege walk to examination of magazines to the questions exercise. These practical examples of feminist pedagogy in action will help me and my students focus on fault lines and fractures as we “enter the terrain of their [our] own alterity” (p. 49), which is a land many of my students would not enter without me leading them there (though truthfully some are already there with me). By infusing my curriculum with ideas from feminist pedagogy from self-reflection to conscious-raising to critically examining who holds power, I hope the end result is the same of my personal journey, “to examine the intersections and conflicts between structural and subjective narratives as a step toward transforming the contradictory subject into a coalitional subject – one whose awareness of her multiple ‘selves’ allows her to stay engaged with both herself and the world so that the actions she takes and the decisions she makes are consciously responsive rather than the unconsciously reactive” (p. 52). For me this is the greatest lesson of the entire class and of my immersion in feminist pedagogy – that whether opening doors for another, choosing words to describe another, truly working to listen for understanding, viewing images from the media, flipping through a magazine, interacting with peers, or simply questioning who holds power – we do so in a consciously responsive way rather than the typical unconsciously reactive way. So I hold the door open for my classmate not to be a “gentleman” or not because it is what I’ve been “schooled” to do, but because she or he or zim or zir has an armload of books and opening the door is the human thing to do for another human.
Glee’s intersection with Wicked
Glee cast sings Defying Gravity
In attempting to create a pedagogy of coalition as a tool of feminist pedagogy I want to include myself and those I interact with outside the classroom in the pedagogy of everyday life, in my quest to be as Saski describes “to live, to think, and be at the crossroads of knowing and not knowing, of confronting and negotiating the contradictions of their own lives, and of embracing the possibility that their own beliefs can and should be subject to critical analysis” (p. 52). Opening doors is a great example that not only can I think and act consciously myself, but challenge my own students to do so – to consider why they might open the door or not, so that they may move to responsiveness instead of reaction, thoughtfulness over assumption, reflective action over schooled action. This shows how a simple act can be complex enough for critical analysis that shows deep patterns of our schooling in anti-feminist ways. I want to continue to not only build not off the feminist theory we’ve learned, but to use the ideas our thinktanks presented in class from creating avatars to comparing textbooks and magazines to experienital learning exercises, all as springboard to creating my own dynamic and engaging pedagocial acitivites.
Disability will always be at the forefront of my pedagogy because I am so committed to the cause of disability rights as an advocate. An examination of language through pop culture remains an important intersection to use the tools of feminist pedagogies. Though sometimes problematic, these tools can be powerful transformative experiences. For instance, our think-tank group considered the problematic nature of simulations, but managed to create a new way of looking at simulations to focus on the privilege of ability, which helped avoid many of the problematic issues outlined by Ware (2009). One of those concerns was the inability to truly understand what it is like to be the “other.” So, by focusing the exercise on through the lens of ability privilege (which we could have done better, but I was happy with the results being our first shot) we avoided most of the problematic nature of simulations. However, I’ve realized that almost any pedagogical tool can be problematic and a key part of the process is recognizing and voicing the subjectivity of that problematic nature. So, in using Glee in class we admitted that though the show forefronts issues important to the intersection of disability, language and pop culture, it does so often in conflicting and problematic ways – such as the character Artie who is played by an actor who does not experience disability.
Not my favorite Defying Gravity performance,
but the only one I could find on YouTube
I view Wicked now, not only as a personally meaningful metaphor for the exploration of feminist pedagogy, but also as a tool like Glee, to explore the borderlands between disability, pop culture, and language. In addition, the main thread through Wicked is an emphasis on where power operates, who wields it, and how to destabilize those structures of power, and most importantly a critical analysis of language, especially in blurring what is good and what is wicked, who is good and who is wicked. The musical is a narrative of the intersection of disability and race focusing on how society treats the main character Ephaba (aka Wicked Witch of the West) as an outsider because of the color of her skin, which is positioned as a disability. She is routinely attempted to be “fixed” and even convinces herself that she wants to be “degreenified.” The disability narrative continues through her sister Nessa (the eventual Wicked Witch of the East) who uses a wheelchair. In addition a main character, Fiyero, is rendered disabled when he is turned into a scarecrow, as is a character Boq who becomes the Tin Man. The overlapping fractures in Wicked include not only a thread of disability, but a queer reading of the two female leads as lesbian (Wolf, 2008), and countless references to queer gender performance from Boq’s role as housekeeper to Nessa’s role as Mayor to Dr. Dillamond’s role as teacher.
I envision Wicked as a lens to explore with my students the intersections of disability, pop culture and language, in particular for its emphasis on complicating what is and who is truly wicked in Oz. Though I can’t predict the content of the dangerous dialogues that might arise from critically analyzing the characters, plots, themes, and use of language in Wicked, I know through my role as a wicked trickster I can complicate the matter enough, forefronting that which is typically hidden, and place an emphasis on the locations of power, that we all will grow in our personal praxis through feminist pedagogical tools.
Trailer for Wicked
My personal synthesis of the course expressed through the lens of Wicked, is reflected in the challenge of the musical’s main song – Defying Gravity. It challenges us to wake up, not go back to sleep, to refuse to accept limits, to fly solo and fly free, and though people might say you are experiencing delusions, you must continue to defy gravity. And that is what I wish to do — not only in the pedagogy in my own classroom, but in the everyday lived experiences that make up my life – I want to defy gravity. I want to refuse accepting limits just because someone says they are so. I want to try defying gravity, because this wicked trickster is flying solo into the Western sky – because I believe everyone deserves a chance to fly. And feminist pedagogy is an important set of tools to use in my own praxis and performance as I go into our Oz-like world and seek to defy gravity.
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