Thursday, November 15, 2012

Flirting with Danger, the Movie

An earlier post by Melissa Fabello got me thinking about another genre which often goes overlooked in sexuality education.  In our CHSS 626 class we've seen some media clips from both television shows and other sources, but one that has recently captured my imagination is a re-enactment documentary.

OK, now don't go where I went when you hear the term re-enactors.  I immediately thought of those guys who dress up in military uniforms and re-enact the Civil War and spend the weekend on mock battlefields.  That's something else and not my cup of tea at all.  What I'm talking about is something that the Media Education Foundation (MEF) has successfully done to contribute to our sexuality libraries.  About 10 years ago, the director of the MEF was browsing in (a now-defunct) independent bookstore near Amherst College killing some time.  He came upon a book called Flirting With Danger, a social psychology book written by a professor of psychology, Lynn Phillips.  It's a great book about power and choice in heterosexual women's relationships and it's about dating, sex, and violence.

We know these kinds of books.  We know them as the kinds of books we read as students of human sexuality.  They're great resources, they contain amazing and heartfelt stories, but they're often difficult for the "average" reader to pick up and they don't get on those big sale tables at large bookstores.  But still, the MEF director called the writer and asked her if she'd ever be interested in making a documentary of her book.  The writer, Lynn Phillips, had just landed a job at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a 10-year long project began. Turns out they both were teaching in the same department.  Talk about fortuitous coincidences.

To make the book come alive as a film, they hired young, college age women to re-enact some of the words that Lynn's interviewees had spoken during her interviews with them.  I saw the film a few weeks ago and the words came alive.  The actors were so close in age to the actual women in the book that if felt as if I was hearing the actual women themselves.  Here's a short clip where you can see the effect of their work.

What is your take on this as a teaching tool?  The entire film is just under an hour, which makes it fairly useful for most college courses.  High school teachers would have to show it in segments.  What do you think?


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  2. Thanks *so much* for sharing this documentary, Jane. I meant to watch just a short clip, as you had suggested, but I ended up watching the entire thing. And I think it would be a great teaching tool for young adults or late adolescents. During the sections when Lynn Phillips was dissecting the themes and images seen in pop culture, I was reminded of another documentary, *Tough Guise,* which, as far as I can remember (and its been a few years since I've seen it), focuses on the changing images of men in the media--including the presentation of increasingly violent, misogynistic personas. I could imagine using both videos in tandem, discussing how the themes discussed interact and play off of one another, and asking my students to find examples in their daily lives of the representations of men and women discussed in the films. I think viewing them could also lead to some very fruitful discussion in the classroom about these representations of men and women, and help students see how problematic these issues are; that they're not as cut-and-dry as Lynn Phillips discusses people perceiving them to be. I think that it would be important, though, to include in whatever conversation happens, that the lesson is not about demonizing men or trying to make the male students feel guilty. Without that piece, I fear that some of the male students who were not used to this kind of discussion could immediately become too defensive (and angry about feeling defensive, since our culture tells them they shouldn't ever be put in the position of feeling that way) to have a productive conversation.

    The one thing I wish this documentary had done more of was to have more racial minority representation among its cast of re-enactors.

  3. Josh, I so appreciate your thoughtful and compassionate comments. You've raised a number of good issues which I've been thinking about the past few days. As a sexuality educator, I am wondering who the intended audience was for this film and whether the images that the director chose to use were the right ones for a male college-age audience. For instance, with what we know about the architecture of the adolescent brain and current research in neurobiology, would the flood of images be the kind of stimulation that would register with a guy in his late teens or early 20's? Perhaps that is what the director was looking for in his choice of images. I think your point about the subtle differences in men's behavior could truly be explored more easily in a screening of the film with a male-only crowd with a discussion afterward with a male facilitator. Without the women in the room -- whose words Lynn Phillips gave voice to through the interviews turned into dialogue in the film -- do you think the men would be more or less reticent to voice their own authentic experience?

    I agree that it is so important that the men in that age group to not feel monsterized, just as I never want the women in that age group to feel they were somehow "asking for it" as some of the women in the film announced.

    What I found most astounding was that Lynn Phillips did not start out in her research looking for sexual violence. Yet 80% of her participants voluntarily voiced instances of violence in their heterosexual connections and relationships. Fascinating yet difficult to face for me, as a mother of a 16-year old young woman and a sexuality educator who works with adolescents and wants them to experience sexual relationships that are, as Dan Savage has coined, "good, giving, and game." It is all about teaching teens to be willing to be flexible, be interested in equality in giving, and be good partners in bed for each other.

    What do others think about how male college-age students would react to this type of sexuality education?

    1. ** Without the women in the room -- whose words Lynn Phillips gave voice to through the interviews turned into dialogue in the film -- do you think the men would be more or less reticent to voice their own authentic experience? **

      It's hard for me to know if males would be more or less reticent to voice their own authentic experience in a same-gender class. Men generally talk more than women and are likely to dominate a crowd with their opinions, even in mixed-gender workshops in which the moderator has an eye on egalitarianism. So I'm not sure it makes a difference, once you get passed the worries about blaming men. And I think that defensiveness could very well be present whether this is shown in a same-gender or mixed-gender class. Lynn Phillips is a woman and she names herself a feminist, which makes this documentary a piece of feminist "propaganda," which carries with it (however inaccurately or accurately, depending on the feminist--among whose number I count myself) connotations of man-hating in popular culture, especially among the late-adolescent/emerging adult development group. So that male (co)-facilitator would be a really important piece to represent, in visual form, someone who can understand and even validate the "male" point of view, while offering challenges.

      I think asking straight-out about feelings of being "monsterized" could be key to opening up the conversation. "I don't like that representation b/c [of course I care about my girlfriend]," which can lead into questions about how he shows his caring, what communication is there, and how he acts around sex.

      I think it would be helpful to have both same-gender and mixed-gender groups. Same-gender groups can focus on working through their similar (or dissimilar) experiences and practice better communication, flexibility, and respect for others; mixed-gender groups can then come together and try out their new self-understandings and skills with each other.

      I'm also wondering: Are there videos like this about gender dynamics and dominance/submissiveness in lesbian and gay relationships?

  4. Awesome post Jane! I love the video produced/created by the MEF! They deconstruct gender and sexuality in very accessible ways because they take the ideas (like the ones presented in Lynn Phillips' book) and turn it into the visual representation and discussion that more college and even high school aged students will absorb. I, like Josh, started just watching the preview but ended up watching the whole documentary and I think it would be a wonderful tool to have ready for a college classroom. Pairing it with Tough Guise (also from MEF) would be a great addition - smart idea Josh! It would be interesting for students to see these documentaries together and then talk about where they see the messages playing out in their lives or in other media examples.

    While I do see the value in having disclaimers to ensure that no one group or sex feels like they are being portrayed completely negatively, I still feel that these types of discussions, especially in college campuses, need to with mixed groups of sexes, races, ethnicities, etc. Only then will the discussions be eye-opening and force people to think outside their own experience. I wonder if there could be a way to separate groups for small group discussions first and then bring the whole class back together to make these issues less polarized and try to open the students' minds to new ways to see gender, socialization and sexuality.

  5. I really liked the portion of the film that I was able to watch. I started somewhere in the middle and watched a few minutes. I bookmarked it because I think that it would be a really great tool. I haven't seen this Tough Guise film that Bryce and Josh are referencing. Looking it up now...

    Also, I appreciated your redirection of word "reenactment" because civil war battles is exactly where my mind went!

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