Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Male Privilege and Mock Trial

I’m preparing for the return of the school year, hoping to tackle it in a feminist fashion. One of the best things about my homeschool group is that it’s small and the women who run things are approachable. Therefore, even as a single student, I can exert considerable influence over the institutions I live under.

I’ve always believed that equal rights for women are, well, a right, and that equal talents between genders are a fact. (I’ve known too many female black belts and math-savants to think otherwise) The new piece of the puzzle for me is the concept of male privilege, and unfortunately it’s one I’ve always exercised frequently with my homeschool group.

It’s nothing but arrogance that prevented me from seeing it before—I foolishly believed. I earned everything I had through exceptional talents. Ah, youthful folly. It never once occurred to me that people might listen to me more readily because I was male, that I might get more credit for the same achievements, or anything of the sort. A major part of the problem is that I *do* have a lot (some say an excess) of self-confidence, a forceful personality, and some take-charge instincts. Thanks, patriarchy. But disentangling what’s really me form what’s the patriarchy’s influence, what’s self-confidence and what’s self-aggrandizement, what’s inspiring leadership and what’s privileged domination is no mean feat. Before I recognized my privilege, it was impossible.

I know better now, but still aren’t sure exactly what I can do about it. I’ve been particularly worried about the reformation of my Homeschool group’s Mock Trial team.

For those unfamiliar with the Massachusetts Mock Trial competition, the basic idea is as follows: each team is mailed a booklet containing all the facts and laws relevant to a single (fictitious) criminal charge or civil suit. Within a given trial, a team calls three witnesses (played by teammates), while 3-6 lawyers divide up the eight attorney roles: three direct and three cross examinations, and make an opening and a closing speech. Since each team will portray both prosecution and defense, there are a total of 22 “positions” to play over the course of a season, although by doubling or tripling up, one person could conceivably cover as many as 6 of those 22.

The first order of business at the beginning of the year is dividing up those positions among the team. The division is not equal: many attorneys will play two roles, but some get only one and others take on three. Further, not all roles are equal: the “star witnesses” and their examinations are coveted, as are the closing statements.

The exact particulars of the distribution are different each year, but there are notable trends. While we’ve had numerous (and very skilled) female attorneys, with only one notable exception the “star” attorneys of our team have been male. Female team members disproportionately take on witness roles, which are seen by many as less difficult. Male team members are almost always assigned the parts considered more “confrontational.” They conduct the heated cross-examinations; girls do cross exams requiring a lighter touch. Girls read the sedate and neutral opening statements; boys deliver the invective-laden closing arguments. If there’s one thing I can give us credit for, it’s how we assign the witnesses: we have a long and successful tradition of having girls play the expert witnesses.

(Incidentally, before this very moment, I never realized how gender-based our casting really was!)

Now, the teammates own wishes play a substantial role in assigning the parts, so they bear some of the blame. The subjective nature of the judging is another confound: if male attorneys are widely perceived as more competent or threatening, a coach might simply be picking the team members likely to get the best scores and still be an unwitting pawn of the patriarchy.

Every year, I’ve had a substantial role, and every year, a bigger role than in the year before. I wish my sister-counsel well, but fundamentally, every role I get is a role a female student doesn’t—and maybe, I now realize, one more qualified than I am. Even so, I’d like to be the start again, for obvious reasons. Is there anything I can do about this? What can I do to make sure that I’ve truly earned the role I get? And how can I make sure the (female) coach is fair to (female) students?
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