Well, the shit has hit the fan, gender-wise, at Waterloo. Again. Please go read the news coverage to know what I’m talking about, and then come back. Let me just say there are bikinis, and Formula One racecars, a dean of engineering, and some corporate sponsors.
Wednesday’s headline: UW shuts down student car team over racy photograph
Thursday’s headline: Car sponsors decry UW decision on bikini photo
My reaction to these stories is complicated. Issues of money (corporate sponsors, the charity), power (the university, the engineering faculty), academic culture (grades and teamwork and academic integrity involved in facility use), sex (she’s not wearing coveralls in the photo), gender (the discussion of expressing femininity in a male-dominated faculty), and even feminism (the university’s efforts at equity and at female recruitment and retention, successful or not) intermingle in ways that are hard to disentangle, let alone understand.
I’ve tagged this post “righteous feminist anger,” but I’m not altogether sure who I’m angry with. I’ve tagged it “sexist fail,” too, without being able to say quite who has failed.
Overwhelmingly, though, this makes me sad. Here’s why:
- I am sad that this student needs explicitly to look for an outlet to express her femininity–engineering is still a gendered course of study, I guess, and that gender seems to be male. Having part of yourself necessarily suppressed every day to fit in can make you wiggy.
- I am even more sad that this expression–this self-expression!–of femininity takes as its form the the most clichéd of sexualized postures/costumes for the pleasure of the male gaze.
- I am sad that the shoot was for a charity: how awful that the best thing a female engineer can contribute to charity is an image of her own hypersexualized body?
- I am sad that if we’re going to celebrate our beautiful bodies, we twist and contort them (hip jutted out, back arched, breasts out) instead of showing their strength and power. By way of contrast, this is beautiful and strong together, I think.
- I am sad that I don’t know her name: out of delicacy, her name is deliberately never mentioned in the reporting. Her body we see, but her name is veiled. Is this to save her some anticipated shame at being exposed, while we are nevertheless entitled to enjoy our collective titillation, on the front page of the paper, over our morning coffee?