Blurred lines: Representation versus social commentary

toga party sexism

This article was submitted to Fightback by UC Femsoc member Sionainn Byrnes.

As a sixth-year student at the University of Canterbury, I often find myself wondering whether I am completely out of touch with reality. Whether years of socialization within the Ivory Tower have caused me to unreasonably textualize everything I see – I am an English student, after all – and thus take critical issue with it accordingly. However, the absolute, and might I say absolutely justified furore that has emerged in the wake of the UCSA’s most recent attempt to do justice to the student services levy (which has now risen to $725.00!) has led me to believe otherwise – has, in fact, bolstered my belief that the ‘student mass’ is not only more discerning, but more ‘cultured’ than would be implied by countless articles about burning couches.

Though I have never attended a Toga Party, I am socially aware enough to know that said Toga Party is effectively a keystone within the annual debauchery that is O-Week. I have no issue with this event occurring – I’ll admit that I love to don a poorly-constructed costume – and yet this year I, and many others, have been left red-faced, not by the Toga Party itself, but by the manner in which our student representative body – the University of Canterbury Students’ Association – has chosen to frame and promote this event.

The poster for the 2014 UC Toga Party features an almighty Zeus, appropriately phallic lightning bolt in hand, grinding against a twerking Medusa – tongue out, foam-fingered, Miley-style. It is a decidedly blatant reference to the ‘twerking incident’ that occurred at the 2013 VMA awards, no less to the soundtrack of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’. Now, I am of a feminist persuasion wherein I would like to refrain from commenting on the so-called moral implications of Miley Cyrus’ overt sexualism – Dog forbid a woman should appear to be a sexual creature! (Random sarcastic aside: Because we all know that one woman’s actions invariably speak for all women!) What I would like to focus on, however, are the implications of a poster that appears to make light of, and exploit for capital gain, a song that glamourizes and condones non-consensual – even violent – sexual activity.

‘Blurred Lines’ has been banned from over 20 universities in the UK alone. Hear that! Its deeply misogynistic lyrics have sufficiently turned off that many ‘learned institutions’, whose purported goal it is to educate citizens about (obviously amongst other unfortunately neoliberal things) the political dynamics and power structures that underline normative social discourse, that it is actually not allowed to be associated with the official events organised by these universities. And yet the UCSA, which we may as well call the UC given its lack of financial independence and thus spine, sees fit to use this imagery and these ideas in order to promote an event that, for many first-years, heralds the beginning, and overall tone, of what it means to be a student. How’s that for world-class, Rodd.

Putting aside the very grave fact that, within a week of this advertising being made public, two men were jailed for a sexual assault that occurred within the UC halls – in itself something that should have immediately compelled the UCSA to pause for thought – there are essentially two fundamental points of contention that underscore this whole issue: 1) that the kind of culture reflected and engendered by this poster was deemed appropriate under the UCSA’s self-imposed standard of “responsible and ethical decision-making”, and 2) that because the UCSA has been rendered impotent – in effect if not in actual practice – by a neoliberal rhetoric that ensures it functions according to the values of investment and gain, it is actually incapable of representing the interests of students where they breach those of a standard business model: it would appear that sex (even the non-consensual type) sells.

This inability to adequately represent diversity and/or anything that exists outside of the dictates of legitimate top-down, bottom-line discourse is nothing new, of course. The sustained erosion of local democracy within Christchurch has become a constant bane to those who are struggling to reclaim some sort of narrative identity: to those committed to envisioning and enacting a more egalitarian society. Which brings me back to representation. Does this poster represent survivors of sexual abuse? Does it represent adult students? Does it represent the $40, 000+ student loans of those individuals, who, like myself, are attempting to democratise the luxury of education in order to create new spaces for creative and radical dialogue and action – or to at least trying to make that luxury work in tangible terms for our wider communities. Does it represent the 200+ members of UC FemSoc who, despite paying their student services levies, were made to jump through hoops in the process of obtaining affiliation as a society? Similarly, does it represent the students whose entire degrees have had to be restructured as a result of ever more draconian (and disproportionately arts-based) budget cuts? (You’ll have to excuse my repetition here). Does it represent the lecturers who are often picketing outside Council Chambers? And does it represent those potential students that the UC so eagerly wants to engage? The answer is no, because in the UCSA’s own words, this poster is not representation – it is ‘social commentary’. And that is the other blurred line we should be worried about.

You’ll notice that I mentioned UC FemSoc above. For me this is one of those gleaming silver linings. UC FemSoc is an inclusive, intersectional feminist society that aims to create a forum for feminist discussion and activism. I am proud to say that as a group we host public lectures, screen documentaries, and have launched a killer zine entitled ‘What She Said’ which brings together articles, artwork, poetry, and resource reviews all aimed at promoting and expressing the creative and diverse experiences and voices of women, non-binary individuals, and those who generally oppose the limiting social constructs of male and female and all that that entails. With the support of academic staff, students, and local communities, UC FemSoc is actively part of a larger movement, one that is attempting to reinstate the role of representation within our universities because social commentary just isn’t enough.

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