Small Town Sexism

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Last week, one of my favorite local restaurants, Charley’s Waterfront Café, posted the picture above on Facebook as a way to welcome back the students at Longwood University, where I teach.  As soon as I saw the picture, I posted a comment stating that it is not funny because it is sexist. While it might seem to convey lighthearted male interest in women, the message isn’t about sex:  it’s about male conquest.  My comment prompted many responses, though none from Charley’s.  Most of the comments were from women, and most of them told me to lighten up.  When I refused to acknowledge the picture as funny, many of the comments from those who disagreed with me either attacked me personally or implied that I was disapproving of female sexuality (nothing, of course, could be further from the truth).

I’ll admit, after the third comment telling me to lighten up, I wondered, “Do I need to lighten up?”  Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have a sense of humor, and that I can get heavy deep and real.  Maybe this was one of those times when I was being too, well, writer-ish.  Then I realized, “No.  This isn’t about me being too serious.  This isn’t about me at all.”

If this was about me (or the person they imagined me to be—uptight, overly intellectual, with a chip on her shoulder about sex), then my comments could be dismissed.  No one would have to consider that I—and those who agreed with me—might be right.  We could avoid confronting the uncomfortable reality that it is possible, in our culture, to laugh at a picture that is disrespectful to women without even realizing that it is disrespectful.  If we avoid confronting that reality, we also avoid discussing why it exists—and what we can do to change it.

Sexism at Work

The response I got was typical of the response any woman gets when she raises her voice against sexism—the backlash is always both personal and sexist.  Among the responses I received was a “Get back in the kitchen” crack from a male.  On one level, this comment is pure silliness—a guy trying to get a rise out of the misguided lady, and some laughs from his friends to boot.  But on another level, consider what a neat trick it is:  a man used sexist humor to mock a woman protesting sexist humor.  And, by speaking out against that, I risk both proving that I am indeed uptight and inviting further personal attacks—so his joke stands, and my point falls.

That’s how sexism works.

And that’s why it is so important that other voices—not just the voice of a lone woman—speak out against it.

Why the Picture is Sexist

I was fortunate that I was not alone. Some strangers, friends, and colleagues weighed in with “likes” and support, which I appreciated greatly.  My most verbal supporter was my husband, who summed up the issue beautifully:  “This is not just guy humor—it’s demeaning rhetoric disguised as cleverness.”

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To that point:  the picture is demeaning to women because, although the sign includes the word “daughter,” it is not addressing the daughter, or her desires (sexual or otherwise).  As one commenter pointed out, the message is written to parents—most specifically, I would say, to fathers (though that is not spelled out).  It is an age-old message of male dominance, a “nana-nana-boo-boo, I got your girl” crack from a young man to an older one.

Do I think the boys who wrote that message thought about this at some deep level?  No.  Do I think they knew it anyway—and so did the dads who read the message?  Yes.  They knew it instinctively, just like my commenter knew he’d get a laugh for a crack about the kitchen. And just like we all know the crack he could’ve made next had to do with being barefoot and pregnant.

Although a woman might laugh at the sign (because she’d get that the guys are kidding around, and trying to get her attention), go to a party at the house and enjoy herself six wonderful ways from Sunday, it is still a sexist sign—because its message is not about a relationship between a man and a woman.  It is about a relationship between two men, both of whom might stake a claim on a woman.

I’d like to emphasize that I don’t think this behavior is typical of male students at Longwood.  As a group, they are hardworking and respectful of others, including  their female professors and their female classmates.  And the boys in this picture might, in fact, be respectful in person—as many people pointed out, they are just being “typical frat boys.”  Although I don’t like their behavior in this picture, I have no interest in attacking them personally. As a professor, and as a mom to both a boy and a girl, I’m interested in educating them.  And it is way past time for us to start teaching “typical frat boys” the difference between funny and sexist.

A Message to Charley’s:  Image and Reality

Despite my desire to reach the students, this conversation was never solely, or even primarily, about them.  It was about Charley’s’ choice to post this picture, and the image that choice conveys about this town and our university.  When the restaurant where we take prospective employees who come to visit our campus—and where parents of Longwood students take their children when they come to visit—supports an image like this, it doesn’t inspire confidence in the town or the university.  Parents who are considering Longwood for their daughters might reconsider after seeing that one of the major restaurants in town thinks this picture is a fitting welcome.  Losing students isn’t just bad business for Longwood—it’s bad business for Charley’s.

Charley’s’ posts are generally funny and friendly to all, and I don’t think the picture was intended to offend anyone—I think it was meant as a lighthearted, and genuine, welcome back to the students.  But this picture is not a good way to encourage a positive relationship between Charley’s—and, by extension, the town of Farmville—and Longwood.  A much better way to do that would be for Charley’s to post a picture of Longwood students enjoying dinner at the restaurant—and for Longwood to post that picture on the university website.

The experience of going to Charley’s is a classy one—the restaurant has a nice open space, friendly service and staff, and good food.  But if people can expect a side of sexism dressed up as humor with their salad, Charley’s is doing a disservice—to Longwood, to Farmville, and to itself.

4 thoughts on “Small Town Sexism

  1. Rachel Creager Ireland says:

    Perhaps those women who told you to lighten up don’t know about the longstanding and deeply entrenched culture of fraternities, which encourages sexual abuse of women. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campus_rape

    25% of college men admit to having coerced a woman sexually at some time. 86% of off-campus attempted rapes and sexual assaults occur at fraternity houses. 55-70% of gang rape perpetrators belong to fraternities. 1-2% of college women are raped, though the actual number is almost certainly much higher than the available statistics indicate.

    Put another way, randomly choose any four men you see at a college graduation ceremony. Chances are, one of those men raped a women while he was attending college. Take any hundred women, and one or two of them, probably a lot more, were raped while they were in college. I could name names from when I was in college, and, Elizabeth, I imagine you probably could too. There’s a good chance some of those women who told you to lighten up will find out by experience that you were not so unreasonable after all.

    Meanwhile, one of my good friends just put on his fb page his photos of a woman tied up on train tracks, and no one can seem to understand why I question his intentions. I guess the backlash won. RIP women’s liberation.

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  2. Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

    Thanks for providing the chilling–and very relevant—stats, Rachel. You point to exactly why this is so important: if college men feel entitled to ownership of female bodies and female sexuality, then they feel entitled to rape. This information is particularly relevant on a day when the news is full of a political candidate’s discussion of “legitimate rape.”

    Although i understand your frustration, I’m not ready to concede to backlash just yet. After all, the women before us never did–and look where they got us. Voting and going to college, teaching and writing and fixing motorcycles and flying airplanes and doing just about any other thing we can dream up. So I think it’s time we dreamed up some kickass responses to backlash—once and for all.

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  3. Rachel Creager Ireland says:

    Yes, you’re right. I was having a bitter moment there, but having thought about it a bit more, giving up clearly does a disservice to those women who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today, and is an exercise of privilege which so many still do not have.

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  4. Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

    We are all allowed our bitter moments, Rachel. I’ve had more than one during this experience. Yesterday I had a moment of deep sadness because I realized–on an emotional level (as I pretty much knew it intellectually), that while backlash has not won, we have lost much ground to it. There are many young people who don’t understand why this picture is sexist, even after reading my explanation: they see it only as a joke. Backlash has taught us to equate sexist with sexy in many different ways. One of the good things that came out of this experience for me was that I now have a subtitle for the book I’d like to write: Reclaiming Venus—Laying the Smackdown on Backlash. I believe that is the next order of business.

    The best thing that has come out of this experience is the conversations it has generated, particularly among college students. This post is being shared and discussed, and professors and staff at Longwood plan to use it in their conversations about gender and sexism. Your addition to the conversation was right on target—the aspects of fraternity culture that encourage rape need to be where this conversation goes next.

    Thanks for all you add in the discussions on this blog. Reading your comments often encourages me to keep at it; I hope mine do the same for you.

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