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Put the “men” in “women’s” issues

Among monologues about babies, rape and battling bulimia, the search for self-confidence was a major underlying theme in this weekend’s “All of the Above,” a monologue show by Duke women about Duke life.

The 2003 Women’s Initiative report first cited low self-confidence as a result of intense unspoken social pressures facing women on campus. Surveys revealed declining levels of self-esteem in Duke women during college that sometimes resulted in a pervasive sense of failure.

Today, two major themes from female clients who seek out Counseling and Psychological Services continue to include body image and coming to terms with sexual assault and/ or objectification, both of which impact self-esteem, according to Gary Glass, assistant director for outreach and developmental programming at CAPS.

For the amount of attention the ubiquitous phrase “effortless perfection” garnered, it is tragic then, that seven years later, the problem of low self-confidence in Duke women prevails.

Although programs such as “All of the Above” do attract a slice of much needed attention towards this problem at Duke, transformative change must come from within and above, from both women and men.

First, we need to be aware that insecurity is not a gender-specific malady. It is often, in fact, low confidence in Duke males that lead them to participate in group-think behavior that objectifies women.

Indeed, Glass points out that body image and objectification are not concerns exclusive to women who seek CAPS services. Male-directed programs on self-confidence remain practically non-existent except in association with gender-neutral programs such as the Leadership Roundtable and Common Ground. Therefore, to address low self-esteem in women, we must also tackle its presence in men.

Second, men need to be brought into the dialogue about women’s issues on campus. This means including male leadership from fraternities, organizations that were cited as a major cause of female insecurity at Duke.

Men can also take advantage of female-oriented programs. It was disappointing to see a very small percentage of men at “All of the Above.” By missing the monologue performance, men lost a great opportunity to both understand and relate to women over universal—and often amusing—personal challenges such as coping with alcoholic parents, stress and paranoia of using public restrooms.

Third, raising self-confidence in women at Duke requires the creation of denser networks of support, trust and connection. The new Women’s Housing Option is a major step in the right direction because it promises to ensure a safe residential space for self-selecting women to empower one another.

Members of the resource-laden Baldwin Scholars program should take it upon themselves to engage in much more active and creative roles on campus. For example, they might consider following their joint living year with a mandate to act as catalysts for positive community-building in independent residential blocks.

Ultimately connections need not be devoted exclusively to “female” issues. We are, in some sense, all scrambling to carve out a space for ourselves at Duke.

Finally, women need to stop contributing to the problem by engaging in irresponsible feminism, or as I like to call, the SATC syndrome.

The big screen version of the popular HBO television series, “Sex and the City,” was popularly received by a predominantly female audience yet promotes contradictory messages about what it means to be a strong, confident, respectable woman. Through the hyper-sexualization of its female leads, the film perpetuates insecurities about body image and self-worth.

And by using one-dimensional male characters, SATC both objectifies men and creates unreal expectations of what they should be: bumbling, spineless accessories who hemorrhage affection, virility and Platinum credit cards at the feet of their paramours who tower above them in short skirts and five-inch spike heels.

SATC’s intended girl-power falls short and results in a hypocrisy that only further confuses, misleads and entrenches pre-existing gender stereotypes. Fans of such shows need to be mindful that gender equality is not created by retaliation, and recognize that women are not only victims, but active objectifiers of other women and men.

Various sources have called for an update to the 2003 Women’s Initiative, but what this University—indeed, the students—need is not another gender task force on women. Although politically correct, this is not the most responsible or courageous decision.

Instead, President Brodhead needs to mandate a committee on gender relations with members of both sexes who agree to air their grievances, understand one another’s points of view and work together to address the root causes of gender inequality on campus.

Both men and women are guilty of objectifying themselves and each other. By including both sides of the gender divide in the dialogue, we as a campus can move further away from group-think and irresponsible feminism to refocus on the abilities, talents and passions we brought as freshmen to Duke. We owe that much to ourselves, and to each other.

Courtney Han is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Monday.


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