Classism v. Feminism and Why a Discussion About MTV Can Get Very Complicated Very Fast
“Dear Bryn Mawr College Dining Services,
You are all amazing people. To run this dining hall is like running the world. To deal with these dumb whiny bitches is too much! If they are trying to take the television out of the dining hall b/c they say that too many of the music videos objectify women, then they have meaningless and idiotic lives. You shouldn’t take the dumbass bullshit from these privileged students. If they feel as though they are being objectified, they should write to MTV who shows the videos and, most importantly, the artists who produce the music. To complain about music videos and a television?! Most of the women, girls really, who complain, don’t respect the spaces that they live in. They have no reason to complain about this place. Don’t take the TV away. Rather, tell the snooty dumbasses to SHUT THE FUCK UP! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT REAL OBJECTIFICATION IS!!!
Confused? I was too.
Actually, my range of emotions went from bewildered to outrage to confusion to (perhaps?) understanding and finally frustration. But in order to get to that, you should know my story.
This story didn’t start out being about class. It was about feminism. It was classically Bryn Mawr. It’s funny, isn’t it, how quickly things change?
A few weeks ago Bryn Mawr College screened MissRepresentation. I had to miss it for a French class, but my roommates and hallmates all went to the screening and came out saying it was one of the most amazing things they’d ever seen. The documentary explores the ways women have been poorly portrayed by the media. The documentary explains that this portrayal needs to change otherwise little girls everywhere will grow up with skewed ideas regarding what it means to be female. My hallmates felt empowered by the film. They wanted to make a difference, but they needed a way to go about doing so.
My friend, Nina*, thought of the television in the back of Erdman dining hall and how the only channel is MTVu (the University/ College version of MTV). She commented on the way the majority of the music videos shown on the television objectify women – and since MTVu primarily shows music videos, that’s a really big deal.
Nina decided that she’d contact Dining Services to see about having the TV removed. Because the TV is own by MTVu, Dining Services said Nina would have to get a petition signed, as they didn’t have the full authority to act on a request like hers. They also sent her pamphlets about the charities MTVu was funding (such as anti-human trafficking programs) in some attempt to discourage her from going through with the petitions.
Soon afterwards, these same pamphlets were taped underneath the television along with two different petition sheets. One said "I DO think MTVu improves my dining experience." The other said, “I do NOT think MTVu improves my dining experience.” Last week I signed the latter sheet. At that point, there where only two spaces left on the petition, compared to the two-thirds empty sheet for keeping the TV. As we were leaving Erdman, we took a look at some of the napkin notes and realized a debate was occurring on the napkins on people’s opinions about keeping or getting rid of the TV.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with napkin notes, they’re a Bryn Mawr Dining Hall institution. Traditionally they’re used to convey notes to the Dining Staff along the lines of a comments or suggestions box. The notes are pinned to a bulletin board for the dining staff and others to read. All of the notes are read and often acted upon: students can request grapes at lunch and see them the next day, for example. Students can also thank Dining Services for a great job. I’ve seen notes that say things like, “Thanks for the amazing soup!” or “Good job on the dessert tonight!” The MTVu conversation changed the dynamic of the Napkin Notes Board, though, because they weren’t directed to the dining staff – they were a conversation between students. When I first saw them, only two had been put up:
“MTV pays for the TV. I personally don’t want the school to pay for additional channels. The Dining hall cannot control the content of MTV and it does not differ from what they put on cable. The only other option would be to not have a TV at all.”
“No TV would be my preference.
– It’s DISTRACTING. Any channel would be.
– I don’t like MTV.
– Free doesn’t make something worth it.
– I don’t think Bryn Mawr should support MTV by selling our uninterrupted dining.
– Everyone I know who watches the TV does so they can make fun of it.
•Please get rid of it•”
Nina and I were excited that napkin notes were being used to host a discussion, as no other forum for voicing opinions on the matter existed. We talked about adding our own comments and a few days later I wrote my note to post on the board:
“I don’t want MTVu in the Dining Halls, because I don’t want to see degrading images of women while eating breakfast. We should be feeling empowered, not overdressed.
I felt good after adding my own voice. I felt like I was able to explain myself. My friends agreed with my sentiment and commended me for writing a note about it. And then, a few days later, I saw the note we started with.
I was shocked. I couldn’t understand why someone would write something like that and felt the accusations that those of us who disagreed with the presence of the TV were “privileged” were unfair and unfounded. I was also struck by how this conversation very suddenly became about class and not about gender, as it had been to start. We had been labeled “snooty bitches” and we “[didn’t] know what real objectification [was].” After the shock subsided, I was outraged. How dare she accuse me being privileged because I didn’t want to have to watch degrading images of women, in a women’s college? A napkin note written in response to the angry note said, “…to assume (as you seemed to do) that you have a better grasp on what objectification is than your peers, that all but you are privileged, and that one’s level of privilege at all influences one’s ability to be objectified or identify objectification when it is evident is both presumptuous and potentially false.” Put more simply – what gave her the right to say she had a better sense of what it meant to be objectified? What gave her the right to assume the students speaking were privileged? What gave her the right to conflate privilege with the ability to point out objectification? Then I reread the note and noticed she’d identified herself as a Posse Scholar. Now I faced more confusion.
Posse scholars are students who get a special scholarship based on their leadership skills. They have to pass a rigorous set of reviews and interviews before being picked to be Posse Scholars. Once admitted to the Posse Program, scholars meet on a regular basis throughout their senior year of high school to discuss a range of subjects, including race, gender, and class. I’ve met multiple scholars, and they’ve always seemed to be some of the most socially aware students. “Leaders” would be the perfect description. So the assumptions of privilege from this particular student confused me.
When I returned to my room, I decided to talk to one of my hallmates, another Posse Scholar, to see if they’d discussed the topic of MTVu in the dining halls and I told her about the note. To my surprise, she said she could understand both sides of the story. She explained that when she was growing up she watched MTV all the time and, in fact, for a long time she didn’t realize she didn’t have to see those degrading videos. She said she could understand seeing a level of privilege in those who didn’t watch MTV growing up. I was skeptical at first, but then thought about it. I spent my childhood watching Sesame Street and Arthur. My parents are graphic designers. My ex-boyfriend grew up on reality television and music videos. His parents are immigrants to the States and worked low-income, labor-intensive jobs, including housecleaning. Could there be a classed difference in whether or not one grew up watching scantily clad women fawn over rappers?
My hallmate also suggested the Posse Scholar assumed our notes were directed to the staff – who work hard enough as is – instead of towards each other. I realized the purpose of the board, is, indeed, to write to the staff, but had never thought to read the notes as anything but a discussion of the petitions which had been posted.
So I’d come to (almost) understand the student’s strong response. But I still wasn’t satisfied. If watching MTV as a child was, indeed, a sign of class difference, why did degrading women have to be a part of that? I wasn’t convinced that, as this Posse Scholar suggested, I didn’t know what “real objectification” was. In fact, I was pretty sure that showing women in bikinis hanging on the arms of male singers or rappers was inappropriate. Every day, I felt as though I was being reminded that my job as a woman (or girl) was to be seen and not heard. Women in music videos bared as much skin as possible without being completely nude, gasped in suggestive poses, and worked at looking vulnerable. Even Beyoncé – a strong female singer and pop star– resorted to displaying her body in her music videos. I felt as though that was her collateral – don’t like the song? she was saying, don’t worry! You can stare and my toned legs and displayed cleavage.
I understand that removing a television won’t stop MTV from showing videos that objectify women. I also understand that not everyone has the option to not view this objectifying media. I understand why the issue became classed. However, I do think removing a TV which is currently owned by a piece of the MTV corporation is taking a step. Do I believe artists won’t continue to make offensive music and music videos? Not immediately. But I also don’t think we should be forced to watch something we don’t want to, especially at a school where empowerment is one of the main goals. As one napkin note writer said, “Free doesn’t make something worth it.” And in my opinion, MTV is just not worth it.
*Name has been changed
Images of Beyoncé are from her music video, "Countdown," – as viewed on MTVu.
The MissRepresentation picture is from their promotional material on UMBC's website. (University of Maryland, Baltimore County: umbc.edu)
Names on the Napkin Notes, excepting my own, have been erased for anonymity.