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.