Miss NYU

There’s a bit of a controversy stirring at my undergrad alma mater (and my future law school) about a Miss NYU calendar that’s in the works. A friend of mine and former photo editor of the Washington Square News is the brains behind the calendar, which will feature a variety of NYU women representing different contingents of the NYU student body, including (I’m pretty sure) feminism, with someone wearing a “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt and surrounded by NOW signs. The proceeds of calendar sales are going to the American Cancer Society. As I understand it, the calendar isn’t full of half-naked bikini-shots. But nonetheless, it has still ruffled some feathers, particularly in the NYU feminist community. Which is understandable, and certainly a cause that I’m sympathetic to. As one of the leaders of this campaign writes in an email,

the main gimmick is to capitalizeon the popularity of the sexy college co-ed image, an image that hurts us all. The real Miss NYU? A young woman who works hard to get into a school like NYU because she’s here for an education, her career, her mind, not to be a sexpot…unfortunately the sexist image is prevailing, and being even a bolster by this calendar here at our own insitution of higher learning. Predictably, MISS NYU has come out with the idea of MR NYU-great! equal opportunity exploitation!

She’s right, of course. The “sexy co-ed” image is harmful to all women, and the real Miss NYU isn’t necessarily thin, light-skinned, and fitting most of the other beauty norms in our culture. But at the same time, I’m a big believer in trusting women to be thoughtful actors in their own lives. Of coures, it’s always more complicated than that, but I’m not sure I buy the idea that being photographed and having one’s image used to raise money is harmful in and of itself. At the same time, I don’t think that this Miss NYU calendar will be particularly representative of me, or of most NYU women, and I do think that, like beauty pageants, it is inherently demeaning. But should it be where we as feminists direct our efforts?

Obviously, I haven’t come to a conclusion on this one yet. But I do think it’s good to be having a conversation about it. Unfortunately, supporters of the calendar are coming out in full force, and seem to be choosing to counter feminist questions with personal attacks instead of having a reasoned discussion. The woman who is spearheading the anti-calendar effort sent me this link to a thread discussing the issue, primarily because my name came up in it (even though, interestingly, I have so far had nothing to do with the issue on either side, since I haven’t been anywhere near New York for three months). But the part about me is really weird, so skip it. What’s more interesting is how they choose to discount feminist arguments — calling us “hairy,” “overzealous,” “hippies,” “ungrateful bitches,” and “ugly.”

Now, anyone with half a brain could figure out that feminists aren’t opposed to things like this because we’re all ugly and are jealous that we weren’t attractive enough to be featured in this calendar. Our politics are a little more complicated than that. And as I’ve written about before, it can be a big conflict for feminists like me who believe in the ideals, but who still use make-up and wear high heels and go on stupid diets and otherwise conform to various facets of the beauty myth.

And not that it matters, but like I said before, I do know the woman who has started this campaign — and she’s actually quite beautiful. So I look forward to seeing some conservative heads explode when they realize that women — even pretty ones! — have ideals that are separate from their physical appearance.

Am I feeding right back into this myth when I mention that she’s pretty? I’m not sure. I hesitated to write it, because it obviously doesn’t change the validity of her argument. But I’m putting it out there because, sadly, it does point out that women who are deemed attractive are given more leeway in making feminist arguments, simply because the “you only think that because you’re ugly/because you can’t get a man” rebuff fails with them. Just look at the relative success of Gloria Steinem compared to, say, Andrea Dworkin. It’s bullshit. But it’s interesting to look at anyway. And I should add in here that the woman behind this campaign is really fuckin smart — I should have said that first.

So I’m conflicted about the whole calendar issue, and definitely open to thoughts/suggestions.

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16 comments for “Miss NYU

  1. August 25, 2005 at 9:14 am

    Am I feeding right back into this myth when I mention that she’s pretty? I’m not sure. I hesitated to write it, because it obviously doesn’t change the validity of her argument.

    I think it’s worth noting from a culture jamming point of view.

  2. August 25, 2005 at 9:37 am

    It’s also a not-so-subtle case of the demand for female (in this case, feminist) perfection. It keeps many of us on the good girl treadmill, and in this case there is a demand that feminists be perfect feminists (whatever that might be) all the time.

    I appreciate your attitude which says to me “I’m trying here, and I think I’m getting it, this is my reasoning, but we can talk about it.” That strikes me as a very real and mature response to an absence of perfect consistency in the world. Yes, feminists don’t want to encourage the objectification, but, yes, they also don’t want to interfere iin women making their own choices. So, which is these is the “perfect” feminist position? Forcing you to choose is not really much better than the other cookie cutters women have been forced to model, and which also discount women’s ability to make rational decisions that vary from our own.

    For anyone too lazy to trot out anything other than the tired old “fat manless hairy legged ugly” stereotype, maybe this calendar could smack them in the head with the dope stick and make them realize that feminists look like their sisters, girlfriends, baristas etc. I’d have to see it, I suppose. It would be cool if it turned old sterotypes on their heads, and showed Ms NYU in the bio lab wearing a white coat, etc.

  3. August 25, 2005 at 9:43 am

    As a feminist I don’t necessarily want to end these things altogether — because they won’t. But they aren’t exempt from criticism either.

  4. August 25, 2005 at 10:26 am

    Why not have a coed calendar, like the University of Chicago had?

    (Of course, we have Mr. University instead of Ms. University, so we’re sort of open to the objectification of males.)

  5. August 25, 2005 at 10:36 am

    And by the way, I didn’t mean a skimpy white coat.

  6. August 25, 2005 at 10:58 am

    I much prefer Binky’s suggestion of portraying the gals of NYU actually in their learning environments, be it the laboratory or library.

    I would also have to see preliminary layouts of the calendar before giving any real response to the issue.

    “At the same time, I don’t think that this Miss NYU calendar will be particularly representative of me, or of most NYU women, and I do think that, like beauty pageants, it is inherently demeaning. But should it be where we as feminists direct our efforts?”

    It all depends upon your own interests and what you think is worth fighting. As Lauren hinted to, beauty calendars using the female form have been around for quite some time, and they’re not going to go away in the near future.

    Also, I’m wary of letting it slide just because they’re raising money for “a noble cause”. Lots of bad shit happens under that guise.

    “And I should add in here that the woman behind this campaign is really fuckin smart — I should have said that first.”

    I agree; however, a calendar touting around with using the name MISS NYU is going to obviously be about beauty, and that should be addressed. Me, on the other hand, I couldn’t give two shits about a person’s appearance. If it is to be first and foremost a beauty calendar, I could not support it. If it is a calendar showing the female student body in their student-life, roles, and activities, then that’s a different matter.

    I’m glad you’re thinking it out, though, and sharing your thoughts with us.

  7. Sina
    August 25, 2005 at 11:37 am

    Along these lines, Jill (and not to sidetrack the conversation), I wonder how you feel about the “sex zines” in places like UChicago (Vita Excolatur) and Harvard (The HBomb). I don’t know if NYU has one yet. These seemed to be good, sex-positive, queer-positive magazines, but they increasingly look like your classic Hustler “young busty co-ed” porn… but where’s the line? Is it about representation, about the kinds of bodies represented, about the variety of lives represented, about the sexualities represented? Is it about showing women as both brainy and sexy, with neither apologetically trumping the other?

  8. August 25, 2005 at 11:39 am

    On a personal note, I also know this former photo editor, and I wonder if a small bit of your concern regarding intent has to do with his, I guess you could say, shock-jock personality. As opposed to the larger concern concerning beauty pageants in general.

    I’m just saying, if you know him better than I do, which I have every reason to suspect, well… I’m sure you have an inkling of what he might come out with…

  9. root
    August 25, 2005 at 3:58 pm

    I think this is a case of women (us) considering and being careful and thoughtful and commenting intelligently but what’s forgotten is a great many of the people (men) who buy this calendar don’t give a crap. A very dear friend of mine who is twice my age and male gave me some pretty good relationship advice. I was going on and on how a guy wasn’t understanding me and he said, “Of course, he’s not listening to you-he’s staring at your breasts!” Turns out he was right.
    “This is what a feminist looks like” – a calendar girl?! No it’s not OK and I feel fine about calling it totally wrong headed. Intelligent women posing then goes to further justify that intelligent women choose to objectify themselves so using your beauty is just fine. It hurts all of us and their actions do not occur in a vacuum.

  10. August 25, 2005 at 6:06 pm

    Jill, great post. It’s a hard issue and I’m not sure what I think either. I’m wondering about the extent to which the fact that “the proceeds of calendar sales are going to the American Cancer Society” influences this debate. True, it appeals to harmful stereotypes but that’s probably true of almost all advertising. Organizations trying to raise money usually pull off a stunt just to get attention. I realize that the ends don’t always justify the means but I’d be less sympathetic if they were raising money for new sports’ jerseys.

  11. kate
    August 25, 2005 at 6:30 pm

    Three things:
    First of all, I’m posting this so people don’t all think I’m the token abortion crank.
    Second, I read at another site (maybe feministing?) that the reactionaries seriously resort to the lowest common denominator when faced with critique, like “Michael Moore is fat” and “feminists are ugly”. I really do think that it is an indicator of our extremely misogynistic society that people actually do think that we feminists agitate for equal rights because we can’t get laid. If anyone remembers the pie fight wars at dailykos, men who call themselves liberal, progressive and feel free to slap the label anti-woman on politicians who oppose abortion, were saying things like “only women who are old, post-menopausal, fat, ugly, uptight” oppose seeing nubile half-naked women rubbing meringue on each other. Not too different from the standard Rush Limbaugh/Ann Coulter meme about feminists, eh?
    Lastly, you mentioned Gloria Steinem, but there’s also Naomi Wolf, who wrote “The Beauty Myth”, a provocative attack on the pressures for women to be beautiful. In my opinion, the beauty standard is so unquestioned that if anyone attacks it, people freak out. In her case, it was like they thought that she must have some personal intimate reason for being anti-beauty standard, not that she came to her own philosophical/moral/political conclusions. One pundit commented that she lost the PR battle no matter what she looked like: if she was pretty people would say that she had no credibility and if she was ugly she was just another bitter hairy-legged feminist.

  12. August 25, 2005 at 8:40 pm

    I agree with Chris. I’ve hesistated to point out how hot feminists are in the past and it never came to any good. Fling it in someone’s face and watch the scrambling and dissembling. You disarm them.

    There’s nothing wrong with being beautiful. There’s something wrong with making that the sole standard by which to judge a woman.

  13. August 25, 2005 at 9:17 pm

    On the NYU facebook page there is a group called Miss NYU. You had to get invited to the group (I declined months ago). I guess these are the girls that are going to participate in the calendar…

    I know you love facebook so thought you might want to peruse it.

    I don’t know how I feel about the whole thing. I do, however, know a bunch of the girls in the group. Go figure.

  14. Olive
    August 26, 2005 at 9:53 am

    I feel like when the revolution is over and society is perfect, there will still be beautiful-people calendars. Problem is, people have different notions of “beautiful,” and that’s not well-addressed yet, and women are excessively judged by appearance, and that’s not fixed yet, so calendars can’t be as innocent these days as they will in the perfect world.

    There would be no point in affirmative action in the perfect world- that doesn’t mean we don’t need it now. Same internal debate- maybe this problem would be fixed by changing X, but once it is fixed, X should be changed back.

    So I dunno if we’re in a place where calendars are OK yet or what. I do sorta like them, but I’m willing to do without if I were convinced they do excessive harm to feminist causes.

  15. Thalia
    August 26, 2005 at 1:33 pm

    Calendars of naked women haven’t been around very long and neither have beauty pageants like Miss Whatever. It’s not like medieval men were making illustrated manuscripts counting years, seasons and days with pictures of sexy women.


  16. Rabbit
    August 29, 2005 at 10:51 am

    This is maybe a little off subject, but the last part of your post struck a chord with me. I am fairly overweight, and so I am often afraid of getting the ‘you just think that cuz you can’t get laid’ thing in a sort of knee-jerk fashion, even though I know I should tell those people to go to hell. I am so much more confident making blatantly feminist arguments with the ability to say ‘yea, well…I have a boyfriend! And he agrees with me! And he’s hot!’ than I would otherwise be, even though I really had little trouble with men before the serious boyfriend. I always feel kind of bad about feeling more comfortable having the ‘boyfriend defense,’ like my ideas should be able to stand on their own merits without me being insecure.

    Of course…he uses the ‘I have a girlfriend! And she has huge boobs! And she plays videogames!’ (and asked me about to OK the boobs part first…) as a defense to ‘maybe you should get laid, nerd’ criticism. I guess that even though we shouldn’t respond to stupid ‘you’re fat’ attacks, we all feel better being able to rebuff them, even if its sort of giving them legitimacy at the same time.

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