Anti-sexism activist and educator Jackson Katz talked with students, faculty and staff yesterday afternoon and parents, guardians and other members of the community last night. Thoroughly knowledgeable, remarkably personable and truly inspirational, Katz invited everyone to think critically about gender in the media and their lives.
To begin his presentation, Katz explained his personal interest in gender, calling it “one of the primary axes around which human societies are organized.” He shared the inner conflict of his adolescence, which he attributed to simultaneously living with an abusive step-father and playing the role of “tough” football player.
Katz went on to explain his path to women’s studies – how he felt he was living a freer life than his female peers at college, how he identified with the women who stood up for themselves through activism and how he noticed that awareness efforts were disproportionately run by and for women. Risk reduction, he stressed, is not the same thing as prevention; men’s violence should not be treated as a women’s issue.
Throughout his presentation, Katz shared personal experiences. He pointed out that, in order to prevent incidents of abuse, we all have to pitch in to address and change the set of attitudes that makes gender violence possible. But, he said, bystanders don’t have to choose between engaging in conflict and doing nothing: “people have a menu of choices.” Further, everyone makes such decisions on a deeply personal level; Katz loves football and, though he is very much aware of the sport’s sexist tendencies, enjoys it still. While he believes there is room for compromise in the business of changing attitudes, he sees no excuse for ignoring “explicit misuses of power.”
Regarding media representations of gender, Katz spent time on symbolic space, citing the recent increase in action figures’ body mass (from the Star Wars cast to G.I. Joe’s biceps) as representative of cultural reactions and attitudes. He qualified these examinations: “I’m not saying – nor does any thoughtful person say – that media makes people violent. … [But] media is the great norming force of our time.”
Katz pointed out that boys – his young son among them – are often impressed by exaggerated displays of physical power. This, he believes, is natural given that even the most privileged boys don’t have much control over their own lives until adulthood. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be powerful and strong, he summed up, as long as it’s “powerful and strong in the service of justice and advancing our species, not protecting our turf.”
In conclusion, Katz thanked girls and women for their leadership in gender violence prevention and asked boys and men to consider their role in making society a safer, healthier place for everyone. When a mother asked him in his evening presentation about how to mentor young boys, Katz stressed the importance of adult men getting on board to redefine manhood for boys and other men.
In the days following Katz’ presentation, staff, faculty members and students considered how to avoid the symbolic annihilation of women through their language choices. Male and female students addressed the mixed-gender audience at Morning Meeting as “ya’ll” and “everyone,” sending smiles across the Great Room. Librarian Rachel Shaw made a display in the library of the films Katz showed and referenced. Teachers incorporated solution-oriented gender discussions into their lesson plans and directed students to more resources, including those at JacksonKatz.com.