Film and learning how to be a girl

By Dr. Kristina Gottschall, Charles Sturt University, Bathurst NSW Australia

Governments, policy-makers, teachers, education researchers – we all think we know what teaching and learning or ‘pedagogy’ is all about. Indeed, we set our expectations, base our actions, and stake our reputations on knowing all the ins and outs of pedagogy and how we make it work most effectively. Sometimes it’s even taken as a given in regard to how it’s done, what are its aims and how it is achieved. In recent times, pedagogy seems to be increasingly talked about as if it is quantifiable, deliverable and a largely predictable process.

In my research inspired by feminist and post-structural thinking, what I’ve come to realise is that pedagogy cannot be quantified and is far from predictable. Knowledge cannot simply be transferred. In many respects, teaching and learning – how it works – or how it doesn’t work, is a mystery and we are still finding new ways to articulate the challenges it poses.

As a fluid, multi-directional and multi-dimensional process, pedagogy is best understood as a complex meaning-making process between the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner’. The teacher doesn’t cause learning, rather, they are only one part of the context in which learning may occur. Teaching and learning is complex! It’s profoundly relational and contextual, ideally a consciousness-changing experience that ‘…takes place in the interaction of three agencies —teacher, the learner and the knowledge they together produce’ (Lusted 1986, 3; Ellsworth 1997, 2005). It’s all about producing knowledge in interactive, meaningful and productive ways, as opposed to ‘merely a transmissive act’ (Lather 1991, 15). What works in one place, may not work in another. What works for some students, might spectacularly fail others. This is the nature of teaching and learning – with all its frustrations, difficulties, questionings, silences, diversities and demands.

Primarily, I am interested in how popular culture and popular films might work as pedagogy. All too often film critics and scholars are quick to dismiss films as ‘sexist’ or ‘racist’ or ‘too violent’. The moral panics around the effects on spectators, and particularly children, seen as being more ‘vulnerable’ or susceptible, are par for the course. For me, though, such critiques and concerns are only the beginning of the analysis not the end. What makes a film sexist or racist and to who, and under what cultural and social conditions? How is the film, as a text, designed in such a way so that spectators come to understand key things about gender and race, etc?

In my recent article ‘From the frozen wilderness to the moody sea: Rural space, girlhood and popular pedagogy’ published in Gender & Education (Volume 26, Issue 5), I focus on how a small body of films might potentially work as vehicles for teaching and learning about youth, gender and space. The films include four key Australian ‘coming of age’ films about girls growing up in rural or rural coastal locales: Peaches set in a sleepy town on the banks of the Murray River, Somersault set in the frozen wilderness of Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains, Caterpillar Wish set in a South Australian coastal town full of secrets and lies, and in Indigenous film maker Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds, the story of two Indigenous youths on a road trip through rural New South Wales.

In the article, I argue that representations of the ‘rural’ shape what is possible in the making of ‘girlhood’. Ideas of the rural are both enabling and constraining for the girl subject of these films, and potentially more broadly. I explore how popular film might use representations of the rural to educate spectators about girls as ‘successful’, ‘in crisis’ and/or as girls asserting ‘girlpower’. I highlight various filmic, narrative and affective techniques that encourage learning in these terms. For instance, I think about how spectators are invited to know the protagonists of these films as psycho-sexual, moral, relational and spatial subjects, where various techniques such as the sound and music score and familiar tropes like staring off into space, high drama and confessional scenes and ripples of madness, work together to engage us in key ways around girlhood. Not every spectator will respond in the same way to these images because pedagogy is not a simple act of transmission, and people and contexts are diverse. Likewise, key design features do not determine what can be learned in a predictable way, but they do constrain what can be known. The girl in a rural place is made intelligible through common significations that we see repeated time and again.

So in engagement with these films, I explore how we might potentially learn how ideal youthful feminine subjectivity ‘should’ potentially be done, how it is done in the rural space, and what is at stake in forming or not forming oneself as a specific subject in specific ways.

It is this in-between space between the text and the spectator (or the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner’), and the knowledge they together produce that will continue to frame my research and my own teaching as I question just what is pedagogy, can we ever fully know how it works and what might this mean for our practice?

Dr. Kristina Gottschall is a lecturer in Indigenous Studies for the Centre for Indigenous Studies at Charles Sturt University, joining the centre in 2014. Graduating from her Doctor of Philosophy in Education 2011, she is an early-career scholar researching across the areas of popular and public pedagogies, popular film culture, post-structural theories, social semiotics, subjectivities, gender, sexuality, Indigeneity and discourses about youth-hood. She is also mad for HBO TV series, playing the ukulele, fancy dress parties, salsa with her special gentleman friend, walking her hyper Jack Russell and Terrier-X dogs, and reading a good book in bed with a glass of red.

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