January 22, 2014

Misogyny and Passive Activism

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

I came upon some graffiti in a campus women’s restroom recently and I just had to take a photo. The messages from women to other women are fascinating from a sociological perspective.

Many students resist the theories, data, and research findings about how gender and power structure our lives even though the dynamics of how women as a group are devalued surround us every day.

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The first message, minus the profanity, basically states, “You girls are so ... disgusting make up and perfume can’t cover up your ugliness and nastiness. Flush ... flush.”

This message is crossed out and another person wrote, “Don’t listen!”

The third message, in a dark and bold ink, basically states that, “Stupid Girls. Grow the ... up. You girls are in college & you girls write in the restroom WTF is that? If you girls want to write on the walls write on big walls not here go in the street & do it!”

Sociologically, what is going on here?

In my reading of these, the first message reveals a person who may have some negative feelings about social relationships with other college students. We don’t know why, of course, but it seems clear that she is does not have positive feelings about other women on campus.

There is an inherent misogyny, or a hatred of women, in calling any woman who may use make-up or perfume – or who may read this message –ugly or nasty. Even if this expression is aimed at specific individuals who may have hurt her, using such generic language transfers that wound and its negative emotions and conclusions to the entire group (all women) –the very definition of stereotyping and prejudice.

Although it seems counter intuitive, people who actually belong to a group can be prejudiced against that group –  women can be sexist and misogynistic; people of color can be racist against their own ethnic or racial group; old people can be ageist; and so forth.

The second response (“Don’t listen”) is in the tradition of silencing women, especially when uncomfortable things are being said. Rather than deal with the issue at hand, a common societal response to the problems of women is to ignore them or to otherwise ensure the complaint is trivialized and/or the complainer is quieted. Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly videos all show quite well how advertising silences women.

The third and last message is fascinating as it calls for activism and could be seen as supportive of the original person’s message yet is rife with irony. She is telling the college “girls” to grow up and not write on the bathroom walls even as she herself is doing so.

She uses insults with the words “stupid” and “girls” to demean the previous writers even as she points out they are in college.

The last part of her message is a very supportive call to action and is the opposite of silencing women. That this writer uses a darker ink, she may herself be one who writes on the big walls thus she is inviting the other women to use their voices in a public arena.

I would call this an example of feminist activism even though it is somewhat passive in its strategy. She herself is still just writing on a bathroom wall. On the other hand, she is not silencing women directly as the second writer did. She is redirecting their need to express themselves to a more public place.

I reported the graffiti to the maintenance staff so that it would be erased as soon as possible. Broken Windows Theory suggests that once graffiti appears, more will appear. It only took 24 hours for two response messages to show up. While I appreciate the public expression of thoughts and feelings, I do not appreciate graffiti covered bathroom walls, especially on a college campus. On that note, I think that many campuses could benefit from a designated graffiti wall so that such expressions and art can be shared more publically.

How else might we use a sociological imagination to analyze what is written here? How else might a person’s personal troubles be connected to public issues?

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Comments

We can use sociological imagination to evaluate how social forces have influenced these girls to write in the bathroom stall door. The first girl who started with the writing must have had a bad day and probably felt the necessity to express herself, by means of writing on the door. Nonetheless, the first girl might have been meaning to refer only to one “girl;” however, she expresses as all “girls” are “disgusting.” Her statements can reveal her as a girl who does not use make-up and might have something against those who do wear make-up.
Indeed, the following writing of “Don’t listen,” proves how different personalities form each society. Just as the first girl felt she could express herself in writing of a bathroom door, another girl feels the need to disallow other girls to do the same. In my opinion, this person is trying to be the “bigger person”. In no way does she try to offend or respond negatively back to the first comment. The last, bold writing can demonstrate, also, how in society others are going to judge or respond to your actions and thoughts. The most amazement I found was with the statement: “Grow the ... up. You girls are in college”. In fact, that can mean she is younger than these “college girls” and views the writings as childish. Nonetheless, it can also be an older person, who also finds it childish; yet, also takes place in the writing of the door.

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