A few classes went by. And the spiny subject of gender came up again. Elsie was giving an oral presentation on her final project. She was a hardliner in terms of expecting/imposing a certain so-called decency standard on reggaeton and other manifestations of popular culture. In my earlier feedback on her paper, I challenged her to distinguish between lyrics/images that sexualized women and those that sexualized AND demeaned women. I suggested there was a difference between
I want that ass and I’ll smack it if you just say the word
I want that ass you piece of trash and I’m gonna smack it whether you like it or not
But Elsie had not heeded my calls for temperance. So while she talked about the objectification of women in videos, the masculine faces in the classroom were carefully composed into impassiveness, but itching and twitching with disagreement and irritated condescension below the surface.
Why were the men, again, not speaking up? It took a lot of asking and prodding on my part, until finally the floodgates opened.
Women who complain about those images is because they feel insecure about their bodies, stated Max. They complain about the images because they can’t compete with the models.
You don’t hold it against a smart female doctor that she’s smart, said Victor. Then why hold it against a big breasted female model that she’s sexy?
Besides, its their decision to be in those videos, added Max.
But that decision is conditioned by a social context!, argued Rosa, Zenaida and Elsie. Why do you think there are all these men in decision-making positions and all these women working for very little money in the videos?
But they can say no, shot back Max. If this is going to end, you can’t blame the men and say women are victims. Its up to the women to change it.
I am not saying women are just victims, said Zenaida. I am saying both women and men are responsible. And they both need to work at changing it.
You know, this is about supply and demand, said Max. As long as there are women willing to do the work, men will hire them. You can’t stop it as long as women choose to make their money that way.
I intervened, noting that many of those video models work for free, hoping to someday make it big.
That’s still their decision, said Max.
Besides, they’re doing it to get ahead, kind of like an internship, said Victor.
Lets go back to the point about change only being up to women, I said. Without the support of white people the Civil Rights movement would not have succeed the way it did or when it did. Same goes for the abolition of slavery. Why expect only those most affected to be responsible for addressing the problem?
This is just like the issue of prostitution, said Max. As long as women prostitute themselves, the problem will exist.
That’s a great example!, said Rosa. Because it really shows how neither the women in the videos or the prostitutes make their choices in a vacuum. I don’t know the exact numbers, but huge numbers of women and their kids live in poverty. That’s one big reason for female prostitution. Also, 75% of women in prostitution have been abused. Its not a choice made in a blank slate.
That is not a good statistic, answered Max. Show me the statistic that says most abused women go into prostitution and then maybe you have a point. I am a Bronx Puerto Rican. If we go by the odds, I am supposed to be in jail. I made the choice to be here.
But your parents were not crackheads, snapped Zenaida, beginning to lose her patience.
Yeah, your parents were there to put you on the bus to school, added Elsie. It was not just your decision. You could make the decision to go to college because your parents made sure you got a proper education beforehand.
There are no buses to be taken to school in NY, said Max sharply. Maybe in the suburbs where you grew up it was different.
Well, ok, then lets say your parents were there to register you for school, said Elsie. If your parents were crackheads, they probably wouldn’t have registered you.
I intervened, attempting to summarize their points and the two separate ideological camps that had materialized along gender lines: Some of you have been talking about the existence of personal choice and people not being absolute victims of their circumstances. That is an important point. Some of you have been talking about the influence of your environment on your choices. Which is another good point. These two are actually positions that feed into each other and balance each other out.
If it was all about personal choice, then everyone would be in college, said Rosa.
Not everyone wants to go to college, said Victor.
But not everyone who wants to get to college can get there, Zenaida pointed out. Maybe they can’t afford it. Or maybe the public school they went to was so crappy that they can’t compete with the folks that went to better schools. The child of rich parents who are Harvard alumni will have a better chance of getting into Harvard than most other folks.
That is not true, Victor contended. You can’t just buy your way in. Everyone who goes to Ivy League schools is because they earned it.
Even George Bush?, Zenaida asked incredulously.
Once class was over, I went to my office to gather my belongings. Max came in to talk about his upcoming oral presentation. I took the opportunity to ask him why he and the other guys were so reluctant to talk about gender issues in class. Why had they fed me the reggaeton-is-sexist line all semester when they did not believe it for a second?
Max replied: You know why? Its because those views are not welcome at this university. There is this climate here where you get looked down on if you have views that are not considered politically correct. Professors and other students hold it against you. So I have just learned to keep my mouth shut.
I was floored. I had a flashback to my freshman dorm experience at Brown where my only friend was the right-wing guy who, though at the opposite end of the political and religious spectrum from me, was a brilliant independent thinker. Everyone else seemed to me like boring, wishy-washy, liberaloid p.c. sheep.
After speaking for a while longer and encouraging him to keep voicing his actual opinions in class, I bid him goodnight.
So our first class discussion about gender and reggaeton turned into a 2 hour debate addressing if women’s place is in the home, after all. Our second discussion was a 2 hour debate on the role of personal choice in men and women’s lives.
It was the end of the workday and I wished I could have just shut my brain down. But it refused. I could not help but keep strategizing on how to better navigate the philosophical and social issues that must be addressed in any honest discussion of gender and popular culture.