Last March, Bwog, the blog of the Blue and White, announced that Obama would be delivering the Barnard class of 2012 Commencement speech. And unless you were living in the stacks or under a large, urban rock, you heard about, perused, or maybe even contributed to the long thread of comments, largely comprised of attacks on Barnard students, under the blog post. The press jumped on the incident, pulling the worst of the comments into headlines and showcasing the rivalry between the two campuses in an embarrassing, though short-lived, media storm.
Jezebel called the comments “Rush-Limbaugh-worthy trolling.” The Daily Beast grouped the incident in with the ongoing “War on Women.” And Richard Perez-Pena, of the New York Times, pulled quotes from University President Lee Bollinger and Barnard President Debora Spar, making them sound like tired parents at a soccer match. Bollinger was quoted as saying that Columbia’s reaction was “completely understandable,” and Spar waved off the ruckus as “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.”
As the comments increased, students created support groups (see Facebook’s “I love bold, beautiful women on both sides of Broadway”), signed petitions (see change.org’s “STAND IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE WOMEN OF BARNARD AND COLUMBIA AGAINST MISOGYNY”), and argued about whether they should be creating support groups or signing petitions. In response, both Bollinger and Spar released new statements, noting that they felt “disrespectful comments are not representative of our community.”
It was around this time that I was at lunch with a friend from Barnard, who began talking animatedly about the Bwog comments as she read me an email she had written to Debora Spar expressing her horror at the entire situation and encouraging Spar to recognize the gravity of the remarks.
I had barely gotten over wondering how she had President Spar’s personal email address before I realized I needed to show a reaction—“Yeah, no, totally,” I said, shoving some food into my mouth, so that the following words came out muffled. “It’s horrible.”
The truth is, when I first heard about the Bwog comments, I had the exact same thought as Spar—that this was the result of ridiculous teenagers mouthing off in an over-caffeinated, Bored at Butler kind of way. As someone who lived through the development of instant messaging, Facebook, and “Honesty Boxes,” I understood the magical power of anonymity and had learned to disregard its often unkind results.
I felt that the support groups were superfluous, the petitions confusing—what happens when we get enough signatures? A peaceful rebellion of the masses? And while I displayed concern along with the rest of my Barnard peers, who, like the media, connected this incident to the resurgence of sexism and the danger of women’s reproductive rights, I was kind of already over it.
I wasn’t the only one, as just two weeks after its birth, the story vanished from the media headlines. By the time Commencement rolled around and the bleachers finally left the Morningside campus, the incident had been largely forgotten, leaving not so much as a whisper of the gendered slurs that had been launched at “the women across the street.”
“Barnard = Columbia is BULLSHIT!”
The Bwog comments have not disappeared—they can still be found in the archives of the Internet—yet the energetic responses they instigated seem to have faded away. The online support groups and petitions are stagnant, the press is minimal, and, among students, it seems that memories of the misogynistic language that grabbed headlines has fizzled out into conversations about the general collegiate rivalry between Barnard and Columbia. Now, when students talk about the incident, it is largely in terms of this fraught relationship between the two schools, or a discussion on how you can’t take Internet trolls seriously.
Alex Jones, a senior at Columbia and editor in chief of Bwog, feels that the majority of the worst Bwog comments came from first-years who felt it necessary to highlight their academic prowess. “It’s a result of kids coming in as freshmen out of the admissions process, who were all about the numbers, the admissions rate, the SAT scores, and everything is super critical,” he says.
Ravenna Koenig, a senior at Barnard who published an article for the Women’s Media Center on Obamanard, agrees with Jones. “I think in the first two years of college, the Barnard-Columbia divide really functions as a means of asserting superiority for one portion of the student body,” she says. “Everyone’s trying to establish who they are in relation to each other, and drawing distinctions between the colleges is just another way to do that.”
In an interview with Spar,she notes that the authors of the comments represent a small section of the larger university. “Bear in mind that the vast majority of the Columbia population didn’t say anything on the Bwog,” she says. “So you have a subset of a subset, and the numbers were small, and I think it would be unfair to project those beliefs across the wider community.”
Perhaps Obamanard is no longer news because even at its media attention peak, some students felt that the spotlight was undeserved. In an opinion column for Spectator, Leo Schwartz, a junior at Columbia, describes shaking his head at the “hooplah” caused by Bwog, joking that he’s pretty sure it created a “fourth wave of feminism.” Schwartz argues that the “act of acknowledging and thereby legitimizing the Bwog comments sensationalized and greatly exaggerated the level of sexism at Columbia.” He admits that some sexism exists, but not to the degree to which the press and on-campus response portrayed, and encourages students to “stop looking” at the comment boards if “that type of speech offends you.”
Similarly, Jones encourages students to “scroll past” these comments, both in regard to Obamanard and in the future, and is reluctant to believe that true sexism exists beyond this sophomoric sibling rivalry, or the mask of internet anonymity. “I think our skin should be thicker,” he says. “On a 900-long comment thread, if two or three people are saying women are sluts, is it really worth reacting to that?” he asks. “I don’t think that anyone on campus is actually misogynistic; I find that hard to believe. Maybe they can be brave, and sit there behind their computer and be misogynistic, but I don’t think they actually are.”
“All Your Gender Studies Bullshit Have Made You Completely Paranoid”
This past October, Alissa Quart, senior editor of The Atavist and adjunct faculty member of the Columbia Journalism School, wrote a piece for New York Magazine titled “The Age of Hipster Sexism,” where she identified the different forms contemporary sexism can take. Specifically, she focused on “Hipster sexism,” which she defines by its users (below 30) and its foundation (irony). Hipster sexists engage in “the objectification of women, but in a manner that uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox,” constantly brushing off the idea that their language or actions could be truly sexist.
“Hipster sexism flatters us by letting us feel like we are beyond low-level, obvious humiliation of women and now we can enjoy snickering at it,” Quart writes in the article. Hipster sexism is casual—those who practice it never get worked up about sexist terminology or misogynistic behavior, because it’s based off of the assumption that there’s no way anyone could, as Jones says, “actually” be sexist or misogynistic.
Quart’s article rang a bell. Part of what bothers me about many of my interviews with students, Bwoggers, and administrators is the Catch-22 of the way we’ve begun to refer to Internet “trolls,” especially in the case of Obamanard. We constantly minimize the worth of anonymous online content, partially because the Internet is new, and we aren’t sure what the rules are yet. But it’s also because these comments are, more often than not, very offensive, and we don’t like to think that anyone in our student body or our classes could be responsible for such content. When I dismissed the commenters who referred to Barnard women as “cum-dumpsters,” mentally picturing them as bloggers who never left their basements, I instantly distanced myself from this language, assuming that anyone I knew at Columbia was better than that. But unlike hipster sexism, which is steeped in irony, my dismissal of the comments was founded on the comfort of my liberal arts education.
It is not often that, as a Barnard or Columbia student, you feel ostracized for being a woman. Rather, I am part of a community that constantly lifts me up, praises my achievements, and provides me with the tools and connections that I need to succeed, both academically and professionally. I have incredible female and male mentors and access to a great education. When people read me gender inequality statistics—that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar, account for three percent of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, make up only 16.8 percent of congress—I see them as abstract, distant numbers that don’t apply to me. I’m a visual learner, and I just don’t see sexism in my day-to-day life.
Professor Janet Jakobsen, a Barnard professor of women’s studies and director for the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), notes that it is not uncommon for students to feel sheltered and unaffected by sexism, because it does not persist in the same ways that it used to. “There aren’t that many individuals who subscribe to what individuals used to subscribe to, which is direct sexism,” Jakobsen says. “I went to Dartmouth in the ‘70s, and people said that directly all the time. I became a feminist because all these people were telling me I was unqualified when I knew myself to be. When people aren’t saying that directly, it’s harder to put a finger on it.”
Unlike Jakobsen’s years at Dartmouth, universities act as equalizers now more than ever. “You go through an educational experience that is relatively equitable, and so then, you think okay things really are different,” says Jakobsen. “It’s only at the end of your time here [that you realize] it’s not going to be as equal as you want.”
President Spar agrees with this false sense of security. “Women of your age [were] brought up to believe that misogyny had been killed a generation or two ago,” she says, and I would argue that the same is true for almost all students at Barnard and Columbia—none of us have been exposed to the reality of discrimination towards women. Instead, what we’ve been taught is that women can do anything. Thus, even when sexism is as blatant as our fellow students calling Barnard women “skanks,” “bitches,” and “cum-dumpsters,” dehumanizing them as “barnyard animals,” and encouraging them to return to “the kitchen” and not get their “panties in a bunch,” we have difficulty visualizing this hate as sexism coming from our peers. Rather, we choose to chalk it up to Internet trolls—the wife-beater-wearing guy in the basement, or competitive, SAT-score obsessed first-years. Yet, in doing so, we become immunized, just as hipster sexists are, to a real problem.
The problem, as Quart points out in her article, is that hipster sexism is founded on false pretenses, and sexism persists. Similarly, the assumption that sexism no longer remains makes anyone who says it does—like those who reacted with concern to the Bwog comments—hyper-sensitive or “feminazis.” It discourages people from speaking out against sexism for fear of being labeled “paranoid” from all of their “gender studies bullshit.”
“It’s Feminazi’s like You that Give Us Women a Bad Name”
Just look at what’s happened to the word “feminism” over the past thirty years: its naysayers have argued that there’s no use for it anymore, and so the term has picked up an array of negative associations that discourages people from using it. “Feminism” now brings to mind angry, out-of-date women scaring away men. Just look at Suzanne Venker’s recent opinion piece for Fox News, titled “The war on men,” where she more or less asserts that feminists have turned women into terrifying, unmarriageable monsters. These images vastly deviate from feminism’s original goal of gender equality.
The transformation of the word “feminism” is just one example of the ramifications of underestimating sexism’s presence in contemporary society. To assume that gender equality has come farther than it actually has on Columbia and Barnard’s campus, and to dismiss instances of sexist language as insignificant or jokes, is to inhibit action against the very real forms of sexism that do exist, and to perpetuate inequality. Sexism and inequality might not always feel like pressing issues on our campus. But our dismissal of them can only, as Quart says, “reinforce the basic problem, which is that women are paid less and (degradingly) sexualized against their will far more than men.” Those statistics that seem so unreal to me will never actually disappear if we pretend they’re already gone.
Professor Jakobsen feels that half the battle of eliminating sexist language and behavior from the world is identifying it, rather than ignoring it, and not allowing things like Obamanard to disappear from our radar, even when we do feel safe.
“The main thing is not to be willing to accept that this is old news, that everybody knows this, that this problem is over,” Jakobsen says. “To say ‘Yes, these are just comments on a website and there are problems in the world that women really do face, but maybe we should think about the relation between these comments on the website and the type of political issues that, in fact, Obama was here to address.”
There is no denying that we have come a long way from suffrage and the Women’s Liberation Movement, but there is also no denying that sexism is still a part of our world, whether it’s embodied in anonymous internet attacks or in Fox News articles. Often, these forms of sexism seem absurd, comical, or not worth our attention. In our privileged worlds, we only interact with people who know better than to proclaim aloud that a woman belongs in the kitchen, that wanting birth control makes someone a slut, or that feminists have scared off all the men.
“We shouldn’t just say, ‘OK, Obama was re-elected so therefore all of the women’s rights questions that have been raised are solved,’ because they simply are not. These are real things that we can continue to talk about, and without apology, without waiting for an incident,” says Jakobsen.
If the quick turnover after the storm of Obamanard in the media demonstrated anything, it is that we have the ability to turn issues we care about into news, as well as the ability to silence them. The very fact that overt forms of sexism, like those demonstrated in Bwog’s comment section, persist means that this is no laughing matter, that we have not yet earned the right to look at these issues through the lenses of irony or complacency. Sexism is not old news, and we’d be kidding ourselves to think otherwise.