What does it mean. . .when you say what you mean?
A group of communicators versed in postmodern ideas of reinscription (aren't we sick of words like "guerrilla" and "radical"?) decided last week to create a polemic space out of the fraternity benches. Whether it was right or wrong and who these beautiful, crazy people might have been have been major topics of debate for the past week.
But what about the messages themselves? "I'd fuck her." "Dyke bitches." "She's a six." "You fag." "Pussy." "She wants it." "Drunk slut." "Fat bitch." Because the phrases adorned main West frat benches, they have been lumped by popular opinion under the untidy and problematic category of "anti-fraternity." But these phrases are familiar to each of us, whether we are Greek or independent, male or female. We learned their social meanings long before we matriculated, much less pledged a frat. Most men have used these phrases; most women have had them used against them. (In the cases of "You fag" and "Pussy," most men have also had the opportunity to be on the receiving end.)
To understand these phrases as just another anti-frat message is to simplify the ways in which their powerful or threatening presence is known by us all. Each group of words has a context in gender/sexuality politics that bears analyzing. Enter the concept of keywords. Taken from the excellent example of, among others, Williams' KEYWORDS and Barthes' A LOVER'S DISCOURSE, we offer a few thoughts on what you read (or, rather, what our image conscious administration did not allow you to read) last Thursday morning.
"Pussy": Let's play the association game -- pussy to cat to sex kitten to whore. Basically boils down to the linguistic mutilation of a woman's body to represent a whole person. Reprecussions? When directed at a man, implies that the man is worthless, equal only to the sex organ of the "weaker sex." "Pussy" is not only an "insult" by virtue of the fact that a man is being equated with the negative stereotypes associated with "woman," like physical weakness or emotionalism (whatever), it is that he is being compared to an area of a woman's body that "real men" are accustomed to conquering. This, it follows, is a man who is easily beaten, controlled, manipulated. Now, when the word is used in reference to a woman, it is still the essentializing of a woman's worth into her sexual organ. However, and oddly enough, this can be seen as a "compliment" or an insult; the accompaning adjective depends entirely upon the manner in which the man determines he has atttained access to orgasm: "cheap pussy," "good pussy," etc. Can you say commodification of female sexuality? I thought you could.
"Drunk slut": The label of "slut" indicates that the woman is available to the speaker for sexual use, by way of her "naturally" remarkably low partner-standards (let's think about the reflexivity of that for a minute, boys). To preface "slut" with "drunk" is a reassurance of the woman's guaranteed welcoming of advances: even if you're in that scant percentage of people this woman would refuse normally, her standards have been lowered to non-existent by chemical means (we remember the old saying that "drunk people don't know what they want"). There is no way your advances can be refused, a rationalization of using whatever means necessary to achieve sexual satisfaction. This phrase is only one of many odd kinds of semi-performative utterances, one that makes the spoken word figurative gospel to the speaker and perhaps his peers, but certainly not to the labeled woman, whether or not she hears it. (To explain: a group of people agreeing that a woman is a drunk slut will not influence her to act as one, but can influence the manner in which she is treated by that group of people.)
"Dyke bitches": The set of physical and mental stereotypes that go along with "dyke" and the dozens of synonyms for dyke (the thesaurus of slang offers, among others muscle moll, phys-ed major, queer queen, rug-muncher ) are indicative of a rather skewed labeling process adapted by some men; that is and once again, the semi-performative utterance directed to self and peers (but not object) that a woman who would not choose to sleep with such fine specimens of manhood must necessarily not be attracted to men. If you won't try the self-assumed best, you won't try the rest. In essence, the man sets his own individuality up as a societal gender norm, and insists that the woman prove herself a woman by sleeping with him. This isn't just a feminist issue, babies, it's a queer issue. What's so bad about being a dyke anyway? We should be jumping at this label for what it apparantly implies about our selectivity of partners.
Like "dyke," the word "bitch" (defined in such interesting and numerous ways as "gadget," "hard work," or "complaint") implies that the woman in question is not worth trying to have sex with. She is somehow too hard of a nut to crack. (No pun intended.) And, again, this is a standard entirely conceived of by the person(s) doing the labeling. Do we see something a little odd about the ability of the speaker to label groups of people by their willingness or non-willingness to have sex with him?
"You fag": In Oscar Wilde's time, it would have been "invert." I grew up hearing the slightly less vulgar (but no less insulting) "he's got a limp wrist." Fag. Faggot. Cocksucker. A boy who doesn't like girls. A boy who, therefore, is not worthy of sitting on a big wooden structure with other boys and yelling at girls. This is a boy who doesn't for some reason conform to group norms (in some cases, oh-so-appealing norms like alcoholism, gang rape and individualized violence against women). If a boy doesn't conform to group norms, he must not be a boy. `Cause if he was, he'd want to be like us, who are real men...I mean, boys, right? Something must be wrong with him, because there's too many of us for anything to be wrong with how we think (concepts like slavery and genocide just spring to mind). Like "dyke," "fag" is a label thrown out to establish a concept of Other. And, like all of these perjoratives, "you fag" is a rather pathetic and unfortunately too-often effective way of setting that Other as a necessarily inferior relation to whomever is doing the labeling.
"She's a six.": When I think of the ratings systems used by groups of men (from frat members to construction workers) to measure the fundamental worth of individual women, two images immediately come to mind. One is of Bo Derek's breasts flopping down a beach in slow motion; the other is of a pound of hamburger meat labeled "USDA Choice." (Unfortunately, in our society these two images aren't all that far from each other -- if you watch beer ads during televised sports events, you'll start to realize that scoring with a superconstructed headless bikini babe is pretty much equated with throwing another steak on the grill.) The point is that under such a ratings system, each individual woman who is unfortunate enough to encounter the group of men is immediately objectified -- thingified -- reduced to a subjective judgement of how much she measures up to some cultural ideal of beauty.
Ratings systems are all about power; they are about the power of the men (however deviant from the masculine physical ideal) to sit in judgement on the physical traits of a woman, thus refusing to acknowledge any other components of her existence.
The frat-dominated main quad of the University makes women especially vulnerable to such abuse, because the frat benches give men a specific place to congregate and share in group mentality, while individual women have no such visible meeting place; women remain alone or in small groups, isolated from any collective strength. Indeed, when I walk down main quad on a weekend afternoon, the social dynamic is that of an all-boys school where girlfriends (not fellow students) have been allowed to visit for the day.
"Fat bitch.": The average group of University men sitting in judgement on their fellow woman students demonstrate every day with their remarks that they've pretty much swallowed all the propaganda of Naomi Wolf's "Beauty Industry," as disseminated through advertisements and pornography. The ideal woman is THIN; being anything but will get a woman rated much lower than six at first glance.
On a campus with rates of anorexia and bulimia that may be as high as 50 percent of undergraduate women, these status-quo enforcing comments aren't just asinine -- they're deadly. Many men on campus express dismay over the skewed eating habits of women they know and love -- but how often has each of them personally enforced a woman's hatred of her body by judging her based on her weight -- or by standing unperturbed beside a macho friend who yells, "Fat bitch!" If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem, boys.
The whole power of University men to act as arbiters of the weights of the female 46 percent of the student body derives from their ability to act as a group. A man's silent acquiesence to the abusive comments of his friends or brothers makes him an active abuser, not a passive bystander.
As an additional note: the use of "bitch," examined above as a term which denotes the inaccessibility or uncontrollability of a woman, perhaps notes how subversive a fat woman (or any woman who refuses to conform to societal standards of beauty) can be to men eager for control. As Wolf said in her speech on campus, "Obedience is beautiful." Women who do not strive during every waking moment to meet the beauty ideal might actually not need your approval, guys. Is that why you keep trying to force your disapproval on them?
"I'd fuck her.": It is perhaps worth noting that "fuck" has become our generation's preferred term for the act of intercourse, whether homosexual or heterosexual. The word itself is grounded in the pornography industry, where it can be used handily as either a verb or a noun--and from whence it carries overtones of violence and exploitation. The exploitation of "fuck" is one-way: "fucker" [read MAN] exploits "fuckee" [read WOMAN]. This phenomenon is illustrated by the use of "fuck" as a synonym for "con" or "trick": "He really fucked me over." Of course, this phrase as handed down from men on our campus posits dude as agent and passing woman as objet d'fuck.
The dynamics of this phrase, however, go beyond the simple use of the ubiquitous "fuck." When a man says that he "would fuck her," we must read that he would deign to fuck her, that he would lower himself to fuck her. Her willingness, yea, desire, for his fuck is blithely assumed. The question of the woman's consent is no longer a question. The only person making a decision in this scenario is the boy on his pedestal. "Ah, which one shall I fuck today?"
"She wants it.": First of all, what of the "it"? I think we can only identify the antecedent of "it" as "a good [read HARD] fuck." If you're not convinced, try to imagine a guy telling his friends or brothers, "She wants to make tender, passionate love to me."
Both this phrase and its corollary, "She needs it," are exemplars of the pornographic message Catherine MacKinnon has identified "positive-outcome-rape scenario." All women want to be fucked by all men all the time--they just don't know it. It's up to a big strong man to prove to them that they want it. Sure, she may struggle at first, but in the end she'll thank you. This phrase is especially often applied to feminists, lesbians and any other women whose vocal lifestyles make them seem less accessible to men than the average quad-prey. Men who need to control women assume that women who rebel just need a little more control [read RAPE].
And we shake our heads in wonder at the number of purple ribbons on the quad during rape awareness week. Perhaps we should all take this moment of awareness, forced on us courtesy of the "vandals," to honestly face up to the connection between the words said by University men in public spaces every day and the violence done to women in their rooms at night.
The fraternity boys, Dean Vansant and (God help us) a few women on campus have all had a voice in a disturbing whine-fest about the inappropriateness of these messages for the past week. To paraphrase Vansant, the messages do not foster the kind of environment the University should have. Hello? That's the whole point. All the "radicals" did was to put back on the benches what they heard from those places. They were saying "there's something wrong with what we're hearing and what it implies about our place on this campus. Listen to and think about what you're saying, or, even if you're not saying it, what you're condoning by not condemning it."
Yes, there are fraternity men working hard, even within their organizations, to stop the ideologies perpetuated by statements like the above. No one's questioning that. What's being questioned, perhaps, is why the process is so slow, the ideas that need to be erased so ingrained. Not to single you out, indignant Phi Psis, but how many of your fraternity's "Red Light District/Bourbon Street" parties have you boycotted or actively campaigned to have banned?
Tradition? Why don't you say what you mean?
If you would like to add your voice to this discussion, SARC (Students Acting for Residential Change) is sponsoring a speak-out today on the Chapel Steps at 1:45. There is also a petition to sign at the Bryan Center Info Desk.
If you feel your voice is not being heard, then do something about it.