“The Primary Value As a Female Student Was Your Sexuality."
Words from Cheryl Simon, a teacher in Dawson’s Cinema-Communications department as she reflects on her time as a film production/photography student at Ryerson University.
By: Nicolas Viger-Collins
The first question I asked Cheryl Simon, a teacher in Dawson's Cinema-Communications department, the question which seemed the most obvious and the most important to ask, was whether she’d ever been personally subjected to sexism as a student and academic in cinema. “[I] wasn’t directly attacked. I have observed it over the course of time, due to my age,” she tells me. Even without experiencing it herself, she knew other women who were subjected to sexist attitudes, seeing as sexism was far more prevalent at the time of her studies – to the extent that "many [male] teachers were having relations with their students”. Women in film had to fight in order to gain respect. "They really needed to dig their heels in," says Simon, "in order to fight back, and try to prove themselves as female filmmakers”. Gender played a significant role in academia during her time at Ryerson: there were “different attitudes towards women at the time." Fast forward to about twenty years ago: Simon had just finished her Ph.D.at Concordia and was beginning her career here at Dawson. She recalls one particular incident as being the only sexist comment made to her in her teaching career. “I had just finished my Ph.D. and my husband bought me this nice pen as a gift," she says, "and this one older teacher who was about 80 said to me 'I wouldn’t give a pen like that to a women, she’d just lose it.'”. A comment like this might not seem that bad comparatively to others’ experiences, but it reflects the differential treatment of women overall; no man who has just received a Ph.D. is going to be told that he's not intelligent enough to take care of a pen. Ryerson University was established in Toronto in 1948; by the time Cheryl Simon was enrolled as a student, the school had only been around for some thirty-odd years. As she put it, “[it] was a young school at the time with different attitudes. Some teachers would even have classes at the school’s bar”. It was scenarios like this in part that led to a more casual and relaxed approach to sexism at the academic level.
Sexism is one of the most prevalent and troubling aspects of film's history: both outsiders and insiders have described the environment as a “boys club mentality”. When I asked Simon if this applies her time at school, she told me “[it] definitely was a boys club mentality, especially when it comes to who got what equipment and when they could get it”. At the same time, she commented that female students' fight for recognition did not let them down; “they ultimately were the ones who won in the long run and went on to do things”. Before our talk ended, I asked her one last question. How can we as a society and academic body help change these biased ways? She simply answered; “through dialogue with each other, inside and outside the classroom.”