Students signing up for an English course entitled “Introduction to Fiction,” a popular elective at Purdue University in Indiana, might expect to find themselves in a writing course. While the university’s course description would appeal to any student looking for a “reading and discussion of short stories…to promote awareness, and appreciation…of modern fiction,” it nevertheless left some in the class unprepared for what they did find: a crash course in lesbian literature.
As students often discover, course descriptions and syllabi frequently contain some amount of disparity between them. However, in this case the amount of difference between the two was so great that students would have deemed it misleading. For example, the instructor, Binnie Martin, subtitled the course “Gender and Bodily Expressions, Images and Meanings.” In turn this was reflected through the course’s required text as they all, with the exception of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, centered on themes of homosexuality and lesbianism. Typical was Tony Kushner’s award-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, in which Kushner weaves a story around homosexuality and the ravage that AIDS has on his main characters.
Interestingly enough, the course description of English 238: Introduction to Fiction was readily available online, yet the syllabus that accompanied it was not. However, it was only in the latter that the actual content of the class was revealed, as the syllabus’s course description conversely read “an examination of the gendering of the body in media and literary texts…and its connective notions to femininity, masculinity, race, sexuality, and class….” Hence the first real idea students received of what to expect occurred only after they had stepped into the classroom, after registering for this class and scheduling their other courses around it.
It was not only through text, but through film as well that homocentric subject matter was presented. One such example was “The Pillow Book,” a 1996 Japanese film whose theme dealt with “the delights of the flesh, and the delights of literature.” According to film critic James Berardinelli, such “delights” were often portrayed through “copious amounts of full frontal nudity” in which the “lead actors (Vivian Wu) and (Ewan McGregor) perform half their scenes without any clothes on.” The turning point of the film occurs as Wu appallingly discovers her father’s secret homosexual affair.
Not only was it compulsory for the class to watch and critique this movie, but also to create “student presentations” that would later be delivered to the rest of the class. In addition, according to the course description the English 238 course entailed the “reading and discussion of short stories and seven novels.” However there were only three novels and a course packet listed under required texts on Ms. Martin’s syllabus, an amount that was far less than what would have sufficed in the online description.
Many of the books from Ms. Martin’s selected texts were often found on syllabi for other classes that focus on gender and/or feminism studies, rather than on introductory courses that deal with the general realm of fiction. One such example can be found on a syllabus accompanying a class taught by Dr. Martha J. Hardman at the University of Florida, which perhaps unsurprisingly is titled “Language and Gender Studies.”
Another example of overt feminism in the reading list can be found in Gerd Branterberg’s Egalia’s Daughters, which Ms. Martin required for the class. In one review, a young reader exuberantly claimed, “If you are a woman you most likely will love this novel!” In addition, Egalia’s Daughters was listed on a popular website titled www.feminist.org
Ms. Martin, a recent graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and now a teaching assistant at Purdue University, is a scholar who focuses on lesbian and gender studies. Her senior project at Miami University as she described it was an “exploration of the history of lesbian literature in understanding the way in which lesbians have created a culture and identity for it.”
When Campus Report Online asked Ms. Martin about the nature of the literature she chose for this class and why she felt this certain avenue of thought was representative of “modern fiction,” she simply responded “Why not?” Ms. Martin then firmly explained that she felt none of the required texts was homocentric in nature at all, and in fact chose them because she wanted to provide an accurate illustration of the male and female body and its representation throughout literature to the students. She went on to explain that she had in fact not brought up any subject that was homosexually or lesbian oriented in class, and firmly believed that this avenue was indeed representative of modern fiction.
A junior at Kent State University in Ohio, Vani Murthy is an intern at Accuracy in Academia.