Repost: Where does women’s history sit in the classroom?

I’m currently working for the explosive company History Bombs, (see what I did there?), which includes creating some shiny new blog content – you can check it out here.

It’s made me realise how much I miss writing and getting my metaphorical teeth into a totally new subject. So here’s part of a post I’m particularly proud of, all about the representation of women in schools’ history curriculum, which I wrote back in March! (Check out the full blog post here).

How can we place women’s history front and centre in the classroom?

Women’s history has been enjoying some much-deserved, and well-overdue, limelight these last few years.

The Suffragettes’ struggle was brought to the big screen in the 2015 star-studded movie The Suffragette. The Suffragist Millicent Fawcett made headlines (again) when hers became the first female statue in London’s Parliament Square in April 2018.

“It feels like history’s public image is finally on its way to shaking off its inherent masculinity”

Caroline Criado Perez, the writer and activist who campaigned for the statue, also successfully led a campaign that resulted in Jane Austen gracing the British £10 note the year before.

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite. Credit: Atsushi Nishijima / 20th Century Fox)

The National Trust even unearthed the untold stories of women in their historic sites as part of their year-long programme, Women and Power, in 2018. While, more recently, the award-winning movie The Favourite shined a light on the immense influence and power of women in the 18th century court of Queen Anne.

Safe to say, it’s an exciting time for women’s history. Women’s contributions to history are consciously being sought after, and it feels like history’s public image is finally on its way to shaking off its inherent masculinity. However, is this progression reflected within the classroom?

WOMEN’S HISTORY IN THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM

Look at the National Curriculum in England and you’ll see that women are only mentioned once in the key stage three history programme of study – unsurprisingly in ‘women’s suffrage’. Fortunately, while it’s optional, many schools seem to choose to teach it.

“Women’s suffrage is commonly taught in schools”, says British history teacher Jackie Teale, adding, “It’s the only sequence of lessons that I can think of that focuses primarily on women.”

Charlotte Despard leads the Women’s Freedom League, in 1911.

However, we’d be wrong to jump to the assumption that just because the term ‘women’ is only named once in the study programme that women’s history is wholly excluded in all other topics. Elsewhere in the programme, ‘Christendom, the importance of religion and the Crusades’ and ‘Ireland and Home Rule’, for example, could both easily include the female experience without being blatantly labelled ‘women’s history’.

“are we novelising something that should instead be dispersed organically throughout all historical categories?”

In fact, some people think the category of women’s history – and even Women’s History Month – is problematic. By separating women’s experiences into just one category of history are we novelising something that should instead be dispersed organically throughout all historical categories, all year round?

With that in mind, perhaps the lack of specifically ‘female’ history in the National Curriculum isn’t a bad thing.

“I’m not sure that most students, particularly at key stage three, would recognise women’s history as anything other than history”, Teale points out. “Women’s history could be fitted within any of the programmes of study on the curriculum.”

…see the full blog post here.

(Header image credit: NeONBRAND on Unsplash)

History Bombs: Public History Review

For a recent assignment for my Masters we were asked to review a piece of Public History and I choose a video by the wonderful team (and new BAFTA winners) History Bombs. While it’s a little longer (and more academic) than my average blog post I thought ‘what the heck?’, I’m proud of it so why not post it. Enjoy!

The last decade has seen a wave of public historians on a mission to convince the masses that history is cool. This is certainly no easy task, considering history’s engrained reputation as a subject full of dusty books, out-dated ideas and stuffy old men.

One of the latest challengers taking up the fight is History Bombs. This team of young, determined historians and film-makers recently won a BAFTA for their efforts, producing fun and punchy videos intended to inspire students and complement teaching.

Essentially teaching aids, these snappy five-minute videos introduce the big facts and arguments of particular historical events for students, aged 11-16, and each video comes with handy teacher’s notes, worksheets and quizzes. Clearly inspired by the success of TV shows such as Horrible Histories, History Bombs is an example of content which – to embrace the cliché – brings history to life in a high-energy and engaging way, essentially tricking people into learning.

Anyone brought up in the UK will remember the joy felt, as a student, when the teacher would wheel the TV in at the start of class. While wheeled TVs have likely gone the same way as cassettes and snap bracelets, I imagine students feel the same delight now when the teacher turns on the projector. Video content will always be a sure-fire way of gaining the full attention of a room of teenagers.

While History Bombs is first and foremost a business selling school resources, some of their free videos have taken on a viral identity of their own – their YouTube channel has racked up almost 5,000,000 views so far.

Their most recent upload looks at the author – and new face of the ten-pound note – Jane Austen. However, their video on World War One (above) remains one of their most popular creations. A whirlwind tour through the First World War, led by a news-reporter-turned-narrator, it’s loaded with information as well as plenty of clever rhyming, rapping, props and the occasional explosion.

It is so fact-heavy that the contents of this one-take video includes, (but is not limited to), the following: the 1914 shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s empirical plans, the Schlieffen Plan, the Gallipoli Campaign, chemical weapons, trench warfare, volunteer nurses, German naval strategies, the Russian Revolution, the German-Russian union and new war technologies. All in six minutes.

For most viewers, packing in this much means the facts are often lost among the chaos of information and speedy dialogue. Saying that, if you manage to keep up, the attention to detail is impressive.

The team has clearly made conscious efforts to include some more neglected aspects of the war, including the commonwealth contributions. Popular media rarely focuses on those soldiers from as far as Canada, Bermuda, the West Indies, India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Women’s involvement in the war effort also features. One volunteer nurse almost has her own monologue when, in reaction to a soldier’s comment “trenches are no place for a girl”, she announces:

“Neither are they fit for a man! / But we’re here to help the best we can / And who do you think manufactured your gun? / Us girls will see this war is won”

Credit to the writers. In these few sentences, some of women’s hands-on contributions on the front line and home front are put centre stage. The Red Cross’ Volunteer Aid Detachments (VADs) had 90,000 members working abroad and at home during the war and by 1918 more than 700,000 women had become ‘munitionettes’.

There is also a brief nod to carrier pigeons. Why pigeons were deemed more worthy of a mention than, say, the Mark I tank – the first tank to see battle and a revolutionary feat of engineering– isn’t clear, but then again there is something oddly endearing about the stories of these hard-working feathery soldiers. One was said to have saved four airmen’s lives after struggling against strong gales to report their crash, only to die of exhaustion upon its arrival. Where is that Oscar-winning movie?

There is more than just a touch of Horrible Histories influence in this video. Lion Television’s sketch comedy show, Horrible Histories was initially for children and aired on CBBC, but it quickly amassed an enthusiastic adult following – and a BAFTA – thanks to its hilarious Monty Python style humour. Many teachers have admitted to using its sketches to liven up classes.

While I refuse to use the phrase ‘funducational’ sincerely, both Horrible Histories and History Bombs successfully blur that line between learning and comedy. The key difference, however, is that while the CBBC show prioritises entertainment – using pop-up placards to inform its viewers when it may be telling the truth – History Bombs’ priority is firmly within the education camp.

Put simply, History Bombs produces educational material that happens to be entertaining, while Horrible Histories creates entertaining material that happens to be educational.

History Bomb’s determination to cover all the facts does have adverse effects at times. In attempting to explain the breakout of war the video runs aground, stumbling its way through the complex web of alliances, politics and bureaucracy. Despite funny characterisations and gun shots, ultimately they are forced to resort simply to a map of Europe and a pointer. To their credit, they created a separate video wholly dedicated to the explanation, entitled ‘Whose Fault Was It?’.

Combining comedy and history can be tricky line to tread. While the expanse of time between ourselves and medieval Britain means that History Bombs – and any production company – can tackle subjects like the bubonic plague with relative ease and plenty of comedy, covering the reality of something more recent, such as the First World War, requires considerably more tact and sensitivity.

The laughs in this video come mainly from silly and exaggerated characterisations – think bad accents, over-the-top facial hair and dramatic gesticulations. It’s also hard to miss the fun made at the expense of the Americans, who look vaguely like extras from Top Gun and declare “the enemy better reach for the skies” before ducking from gunfire.

Perhaps as a way of actively recognising the gravity of the conflict, the video concludes on a rather sombre note, with the narrator reflecting:

“All in all, a tragic loss / Europe secured, but at what cost? / A generation lost / We are forever in debt / 100 years hence / Lest we forget”

Talking straight down the camera in a bright yellow t-shirt, the narrator stands out as the modern-day visitor to the foreign land of the past. Perhaps he represents us, the student and viewer, attempting to traverse the events of the First World War. Either way, the authoritative narrator character works well considering these videos are intended as teaching aids.

From a public history perspective, questions are raised about History Bombs’ creative licence. If the videos are teaching resources, intended to sincerely complement the school curriculum, then how much freedom does the team actually have in terms of choosing the topics and angles?

Also, while it is refreshing to see nods to the commonwealth soldiers and volunteer nurses, beyond that the narrative is one that is traditional, recognisable and, ultimately, British. For example, the video starts by essentially blaming the German leader’s militaristic attitude and desire for empire, (the irony here, given Britain’s mighty empirical realm, is almost comedy itself).

However, if this video’s approach seems a little stale and outdated then, as teaching aids, perhaps that tells us more about the British school curriculum than it does about the History Bombs team.

Within the sea of public historians determined to convince the world that history is cool, or at least not as dusty and old-fashioned as some believe, History Bombs has hit on a trick: convert them when they’re young.

babymetal featured

Meet Babymetal, Japan’s greatest export

Sometimes you discover something that’s so fantastic or terrifying that it needs be shared. Babymetal is both.

Through a couple of friends, my sister and a RadioLab podcast I was recently introduced to the world of K-Pop. That’s a whole other kettle of crazy fish, but it was while discovering K-Pop that I stumbled across Japan’s greatest export (after sushi, the film The Cat Returns and those high-tech toilets): Babymetal, the Japanese metal idol band.

babymetal 01

Imagine a heavy metal band dressed as the girl from The Ring that’s fronted by three tiny smiley Japanese teens, rocking a Wednesday-Adams-meets-Sailor-Moon style and singing catchy high-pitched tunes – all with impeccable choreography. That’s Babymetal.

Strangely, it turns out this band isn’t a one-hit-wonder, destined to join the ranks of Jedward and the Cheeky Girls. The gothic trio (and Ring girls) has rocked out stadiums worldwide for five or more years now.  They’ve got two albums, played to tens of thousands at Reading and Leeds Festival last year, recently performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and are opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the UK stint of their upcoming tour!

All this from a band whose biggest hit, Gimme Chocolate!, is all about wanting chocolate but worrying about weight gain… The singers are Suzuka Nakamoto, Yui Mizuno and Moa Kikuchi, otherwise known as Su-metal, Yuimetal and Moametal (do you see what they did there?) and none of them are more than 18 years old.

After getting over the initial shock of Babymetal, I started asking questions – a lot of questions. Namely, “what the bloody hell was that?” and “what the heck is a metal idol band?”

Turns out, ‘idol’ is a term that’s been bandied around in Japan since the ‘70s and refers to these super young stars (most often singers) who are basically manufactured to be super cute – think school uniforms, cartoon sushi with faces, bows, pulling the peace-sign in pictures, general kawaii-ness. It sounds a lot like K-Pop (my new favourite obsession), where young children are said to be sent away and essentially train for pop stardom.

It makes the Disney child stars look sane.

Babymetal 02Anyway, so a lot of these idol bands have ten or more members, who work on an audition and rotation process, meaning that fresh young boys and girls are brought in to replace the older ones when they ‘graduate’…mental. (You can just imagine some greasy old man in a suit mumbling “keep them young” to himself from his throne of Hello Kitty dolls).

The band Sakura Gakuin, known for this hits Song For Smiling Full and Friends, is one of the biggest and best examples of these bands and is actually where the Babymetal trio started out.

So yes, it turns out Babymetal is 100 per cent pure A-grade manufactured. It makes sense too; their regimented dance moves, well-trained smiles and professional cutesiness just has to be the result of military-esque training. These girls have played Wembley for giddy god’s sake! (There’s a BBC documentary about it – check it out.)

How someone at a Japanese music agency knew that the world was crying out for a heavy metal band fronted by three smiley teenage girls, we may never know, but it worked and now hard-working adult men and women are paying money to see them sing about chocolate in sold-out stadium tours!

Babymetal is strange, unbearably catchy, completely manufactured and just plain bemusing. However, the world can be a dark place and isn’t it nice to have some happy gothic girls blasting out heavy metal songs every once and a while to remind us how weird and wonderful life can be?

Veronica Mars featured

Six reasons you should watch Veronica Mars again

NB. I wrote this blog post a good few months ago during Ramadan. It’ll give you a good idea of just how much free time I had…

I have nothing but respect (with a side of bewilderment) for anyone who fasts during Ramadan. In 40-degree heat, that takes some serious commitment.

For everyone else though, Dubai at this time isn’t the most exciting place to be. Its usual buzzing atmosphere feels muffled, friends leave and the rest of us are left twiddling our thumbs between Iftars – there’s only so much falafel a girl can eat (I’m joking of course… they’ll keep bringing it out if you ask nicely).

Veronica Mars series one

The best way to spend this newly-acquire time? Why, re-watching an excessive amount of early-00s TV series of course. Now, I’ve just finished the first series of Veronica Mars and maybe it’s the solitary confinement talking, but it might just be the finest piece of television gold ever and here’s why:

Veronica is a kick-ass female lead

She’s smart, brave, fiercely loyal, doesn’t care what people think and reaches a level of sarcastic talent I could only dream of. In a time of Dawson Leerys and Ryan Atwoods, just the fact that she’s a strong female lead is cool enough*, but then they went and gave her sass mouth? Amazing.

*Of course, I have to mention the legendary Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What a show! Two of its actors rock up in Veronica Mars and I like to think that gives it some sort of Buffy-style seal of approval.

They don’t sexualise her

Strong female lead or not, it would have been so easy for producers to sexualise Veronica’s character. Sure, they all talk about sex – hell, there’s a whole storyline about her rape (with flashbacks). But there’s a big difference between a character’s sexuality and then sexualising that character (Feminist Frequency recently taught me that).

The show could easily have been Veronica Mars: The Californian Bikini Detective, but instead they put her in hoodies, super 90s bootcut jeans and trench coats. And why is this important? Because while Marissa Cooper was frolicking around The OC in short shorts, being a pain in the ass and getting guys killed, Veronica was on the other channel probably solving a murder or breaking a dog-napping ring wide open.

Veronica Mars angst

So much teen angst

They cover some serious topics…

…like really serious women-related topics. In the first series alone, the show covers rape, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, unwanted pregnancies, drink spiking, and even sex tapes being used to slut shame. The last one is most impressive. This was back when boxy flip phones were the height of sophistication and the concept of video calling required a good minute or two of explanation.

Not only does this mean that the show was brave and a little ahead of its time, but also Neptune High was a truly terrible school that would unlikely have passed Ofsted.

Veronica Mars Logan

Women can be friends

It sounds silly, but strong female friendships are strangely rare on screen, (see any article about the Bechdel Test). At first Veronica spends much of the show surrounded by men, but then again, the whole first series is about her mourning Lily. One of the reasons Veronica’s surrounded by D is because she lost her female best friend and no one matches up. She even keeps Wallace at arm’s length.

Then there are her new friends Mac, a boss-ass IT whizz, and Meg, who defies the school’s social structure to befriend Veronica (granted, she goes on to fall out with Veronica over a boy and get knocked up by him, but that’s series two – stay focussed!)

Veronica Mars Mac
men and women can be friends

Ignoring everything I just said about female friendships, Veronica is allowed to have platonic friendships with guys, which is awesome. Fine, she dates a lot of guys – especially for someone who’s supposed to be a social outcast – but she never dates Wallace and Weevil*.

*I’ve just realised that both those characters are basically the only male characters that aren’t white and rich… I might have stumbled across a big old can of racial worms – let’s save that for another post.

Veronica Mars Mac
She’s never the damsel in distress

Okay, so this isn’t always true. In the finale she’s locked in a fire-engulfed fridge by a murderer and does require some assistance, (but she was totally owning it until then). Also, it’s not a boyfriend or love interest that saves her, it’s her dad, which is just kind of lovely isn’t it? It sort of cements the fact that while the series is about her mourning Lily, the most important relationship is actually between Veronica and dad.

Veronica Mars spy

I’m not saying Veronica Mars is some pinnacle of feminist media. I mean, there’s the completely out-dated US approach to alcohol and sex, which teaches the audience that anyone who partakes in either of them, especially young women, will be punished in some way – anything from becoming a social outcast to being murdered.

But for its time, its target audience, and the country it came from? It’s a pretty damn cool show, with an sassy female lead and has some encouraging messages for teen girls.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go get myself a life.