Columbia Daily Spectator Jan. 21 2003
by Gideon Shapiro Confronting Sexism at Orgo Night A certain cultural logic instructs women and men to tolerate sexist humor. That same logic also compels women to endure sexual harassment on the street and in the bedroom. Whether or not some people found the jokes they heard this past Orgo Night amusing, those jokes reflect and help reproduce a sexist dynamic that exists within and beyond the Columbia campus. A midnight brass-band party in the library holds wonderful appeal. Who doesn't like to blow off steam before finals? Looking for a good time when I arrived in Butler Library's main reading room on Dec. 11, I ended up scrambling to figure out how to respond to a spectacle of brazen sexism. The marching band's student comedian (officially called "poet laureate"), who perched on a table near the center of the room, at one point introduced "the obligatory Barnard joke." What followed was actually a slew of jokes degrading to women generally, efficiently recycled from the scrap heap of reactionary chauvinism. Many of the punchlines relied on the idea that Columbia men can expect blowjobs from Barnard women. The performer facetiously complained about Barnard College students' using Lerner Hall's Tasti D-Lite store. "If they're so eager to lap up creamy white stuff with less than 10 calories," he shouted before the huge audience, "I know a way they can get it that doesn't require Dining Dollars." Feigning surprise that Barnard's application rate rose faster than Columbia's in 2003, the performer slowed his voice: "For once we'll let you go up on us." The performer made light of the archaic social system which denied women the chance to educate themselves. He predicted that Barnard's proposed new student center will have "plenty of room for extra-curricular activities, like churning butter and making me a sandwich." Did people laugh because they figured that most women, deep down, would drop their studies for the chance to scrub floors and raise kids? Finally, the performer tried to tickle people with the idea of domestic abuse. "Sometimes we want to tell [Barnard] to shut up, but she's so cute when she pouts." He observed that "Barnard" might take offense to some of his jokes, "But like a battered wife, she just keeps coming back." What possible shred of humor can shine through the fact that nearly three percent of college women in this country endure sexual assault? Those who did not attend this public event in the library might imagine that members of the audience recoiled at the jokes, or at least received them coldly. One might expect as much from modern college students who consider themselves fluent in the historical crimes of oppression. A Columbia College student eventually pushed his way to the table-stage to encourage people to publicly reject the jokes as well as several of the event's promotional flyers. Unfortunately, he was greeted instantly with the type of roaring indignation normally reserved for umpires and the KKK. [WTF? --ed.] During the performance, I had joined that student and a few other audience members who sensed that the event's absurdist humor had crossed into some other domain. Students immediately accused us of having no sense of humor. People asked us afterwards, "Why did you want to ruin it for everyone else?" I answer that it was the sexist performance that ruined the party. Only ignorant or profoundly cynical spirits can mistake systematically offensive jokes for a "sense of humor." Humor may potentially satirize sexism, but in this case the jokes mostly invoked it. A friend counseled me not to get upset because "Barnard jokes are nothing new at Columbia." True enough: chauvinism and elitism have long and rich histories at Columbia. Today, these ugly twins float safely by in the form of "jokes" about Barnard College students. This local form of pop-culture sexism is reproduced daily through small gestures, but the Orgo Night performance stands out for its massive size, scope and publicity. Columbia administrators are not responsible for regulating comedic performances on campus, nor should they be. However, a responsible community self-examines and self-regulates. The marching band owes an apology to the entire Columbia community. Meanwhile, the rest of us need to consider our stake in helping to shape campus discourse. Just as racism and anti-Semitism can only be overcome when we directly confront their various expressions, the power of sexism will endure as long as we laugh at it, ignore it, or pretend we are growing stronger from it. Too many students know firsthand that sexual harassment and assault at Columbia hurt much more than the jokes on Orgo Night. But those jokes rhetorically reinforce a dynamic which exists materially. Choosing when and how to confront sexism requires us to communicate. In my view, Orgo Night has the potential to spark protest, discussion and progress.