I want to talk about Miley Cyrus’ performance at the Video Music Awards last Sunday.
Don’t worry, not actually — I’ve been in one too many VMA-focused conversations since then. But what I do want to talk about is whether it makes sense to spend our energy demonizing Miley as the epitome of cringe-worthy objectification in America given the amount of sexism we encounter in our everyday lives at Yale.
What we have at Yale is hipster sexism, the I’m-not-sexist breed of sexism that justifies itself with irony. But as it turns out, ironic sexism is still sexism. It’s a subtler, sometimes well-intentioned but ultimately more insidious version of a pop star belting “Blurred Lines.”
I think we can all agree that it is no longer cool to be overtly sexist at Yale. Zeta tried to bring sexism back in 2008 with their whole “We Love Yale Sluts” stunt, but it didn’t really work. Much of that misogyny has gone underground. But sexism at Yale still exists. Now, it’s just wrapped in so many layers of irony that it’s hard to spot. Here are a few common forms that make the rounds on campus.
Let’s start with one common variety — the idea that objectifying women can actually be female empowerment if all of society would just embrace it. One major example of this is SWUG life. The idea that a girl can be washed up at age 22 — as she’s graduating Yale — is ridiculous. But what’s even more ridiculous is to view SWUG life as a form of female liberation when inherent in SWUGdom is the idea that seniors must compete with freshmen girls for male attention.
But there are other examples, too. Like the guy who jokingly refers to a girl as his “ho,” but thinks that’s okay if it’s said with a sufficient amount of eye-rolls. Classic sexists don’t see anything wrong with calling a girl unprintable names. Hipster sexists recognize that this language is wrong, but they use it anyway and pretend it’s empowering, or see themselves as immune to its implications.
Another variety of hipster sexism argues that some sexist things are so absurd that they’re just funny. Some of us might blast “Blurred Lines” at a party; now that we’ve all recognized it’s offensive, but over the top, we can enjoy its catchy beat. Some of us might ironically dress up as a sexy animal for a mixer or Halloween party. This strain of hipster sexism is best embodied, however, by the Spring Fling Committee’s 2010 response to criticism of their headliner, the Ying Yang Twins. In an op-ed, the committee wrote that “while the Ying Yang Twins may appear offensive, most who listen to their music, regardless of whether they are fans, understand that the songs are too ridiculous to be taken at face value.”
Finally, there’s the “Hey, I’m just trying to have fun here!” variety of hipster sexism. This category consists of Yalies who take every class that Kathryn Lofton offers, but when performing in comedy shows or just hanging out with friends, they’ll sarcastically use derogatory language. I’m sure many of the girls leading Yale’s sororities can talk about feminist theory fluently — yet when those same girls are initiated into Greek life, they are told to dance for frat boys.
Yale has made significant progress with issues of gender and sexuality on campus. The creation of the Communication and Consent Educators program and the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct indicate that progress. But that doesn’t mean we live in a post-sexist campus where it’s safe to make jokes about objectification and SWUG life. Words matter, and people don’t always notice when they’re spoken sarcastically. And as progressive as Yale is, we still have a long ways to go to end the culture of sexual violence and promote female leadership on campus. Joking around about women’s empowerment doesn’t really help the cause.
So the next time you’re in a conversation with someone slamming Miley Cyrus for wearing too little clothing at the VMAs, think about the little bits of misogyny we see everywhere at Yale. I’ll take Miley’s up-front sexism, but not this hipster kind from people who know better.
Emma Goldberg is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .