How are sexism and sexual harassment expressed in Oleanna? Were the student's questions justified?

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The play, in addition to addressing sexism and gender politics, is about student-teacher power relationships and the inherent hypocrisy of the university tenure system.

John's conference with Carol in act 1 crystallizes this problem. John is distracted by the details of buying a house, which is one of several future events he anticipates as a result of gaining tenure. He does talk to Carol in a condescending and paternalistic way; his efforts to make her "understand" are filtered through his own experience as someone labeled "stupid" (which he clumsily tries to explain to Carol), and simultaneously balancing the life transition he is trying to manage over the phone while trying to talk to Carol is not helping matters.

Carol, for her part, is simply trying to dupe John; she's not really interested in his class or "understanding" his book but in documenting his sexist behavior. Even though Carol claims over and over not to understand, the play makes clear that in this situation John is the one who is unaware—both of Carol's agenda and his own unexamined motivations.

Carol's demand that his book be banned from the university and her accusation that John tried to rape her when he touched her results in John having an epiphany. John comes to see that it is only by exchanging all his intellectual principles that Carol will withdraw her report to the tenure committee and, in a rare moment of clarity, rejects this notion. Consequently, he loses his job.

Carol's insistence that "it's not for him to say" whether his touching Carol on the shoulder had sexual intent or not is another inversion of the power structure. Carol's claim that the touch was "sexual" or that his attempt to restrain her amounted to "rape" is thrown into question by the play itself: as spectators, depending on how these events are staged, we must form our own conclusions.

It's telling, however, that the one moment of clarity in John and Carol's relationship comes at the end, when he throws her to the floor in anger and towers over her with a chair.

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One of the most ground-breaking elements of Mamet's play lies in the fact that the student is able to use a sexual harassment claim to manipulate her professor. The play came out when the idea of sexual harassment in the workplace and in schools was really beginning to make waves in the courtrooms in the wake of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas trial. People were speaking up when they had been harassed, women especially, and this was something new. In the history of education, women had to just suffer through derogatory comments if they wanted to be given an opportunity. Being able to stand up for yourself is a good thing, and no one should be subjected to sexual misconduct however, the downside of this lies in the fact that it is also easy for a dishonest person to use the law against an otherwise good person, such as in this incident. The student uses the threat of a sexual harassment charge as a means of controlling the professor, telling him that no one will know the truth and that the outside world is more likely to believe her. This is a situation that has happened in real life to many educators. When it becomes the student's word against the teacher, particularly in a male-female dichotomy, the courts and the powers that be will often side with the woman even in the absence of proof. As such, one of the results of this situation and this play is a generation of men (and women) who have learned to keep their office doors open and to make sure there are witnesses around whenever they are consulting with students or subordinates of the opposite sex.

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