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The academic year is about to start in earnest, and along with all the lecture schedules, seminar timetables and module specs that descend on us with the autumn leaves, come the arrangements for welcoming the new students. Predictably enough, one of the clubs in the city where I work is holding a “Back To School” fancy dress party. It’s a bit depressing. Not because the students will just have spent a week being told that they’ve just taken a giant leap away from their school careers. Nor because there’s anything wrong with dressing up in foolish outfits for frivolous purposes (The basis, after all, of much of Restoration theatre.)

But clubs asking female students to dress up as caricature “schoolgirls” is a depressing prospect, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it plays into a really creepy tendency of our media and society to equate sexiness with being young and powerless. From the tabloid fixation on famous girls turning sixteen, to the fetishization of the word “teen” by the pornography industry, so many of the images of sex in our culture imply that the sexiest thing a woman can be is really young.

Faced by hundreds of young women who have sat dozens of exams, left home and embarked on rites of passage which will mark them as adults, club night like this are telling them how to look sexier. Pigtails. Knee socks. Lollipop. Look younger, they’re told. Look less experienced. Look less in control of your life. Look more vulnerable.

It’s a deeply disturbing message, when you think about it. That as soon as they become women, that’s somehow not as sexy as still being a girl. It has profound implications for what we think sex is, and for what a healthy sexual relationship looks like. Because the obsession with “teen” and “schoolgirl” images points both to youth and to powerlessness. We might want to be worried whether we live in a media culture which regards really good sex as requiring a more vulnerable partner.

Secondly, the way schoolgirls are represented in popular culture says something about women’s position in society more generally. Ju Gosling and Rosemary Auchmuty have both written illuminatingly on girls’ school stories and the way reactions to them display social attitudes. In discussing satires and spoofs of the genre, Gosling lists examples that imply girls going to school are ridiculous, and those which present them as sexually attractive.

If many ways, she explains, these are two sides of the same coin (if I’m remembering her work correctly.) Or at least they have the same effect. Fetishizing “schoolgirls” is a way of reframing girls’ education as a sexual fantasy, rather than something potentially radical for both the student and their society. It obscures the way studying at school can change girls’ lives and help them enter careers and professions as men’s equals. Or the intellectual and social worlds which it opens up for them. The image of the “sexy schoolgirl” hurries to insist that girls are for men’s enjoyment, not independent people building their own lives.

This is something which seems to be reflected in the other weird sexualisation of women involved in education: the “sexy teacher” and “sexy librarian” images. As I’ve written before, the roles and characters which a society assumes are naturally sexy can be extremely revealing about its attitudes. The leering over teachers and librarians seems to involve the same logic as “sexy schoolgirl” outfits. It attempts to put women back in their place. To remind them that they are members of the “sex class”, and to rescript women undertaking intellectual work as sexual adjuncts to men’s mental life.

I’ve heard from at least one friend that librarians get very tired of the “kinky librarian” jokes, rather as student nurses become sick of people suggesting they wear their uniforms outside work. It seems striking that female teachers and librarians are probably the two female authority figures which will have been encountered by most men by the time they’re teenagers. I’m not qualified to talk about psychology or sexual development, and how these engage with authority figures, so I have no idea what other factors might be in play here. But the social and cultural effects is dramatic: the two main figures whom society installs as intellectual authority figures become staple roles in pornography.

In different ways, these three images seem to repeatedly replace women’s intellectual and social empowerment with a sexual caricature for men’s enjoyment. The part of the shared system of images and symbols in our culture insists that women’s place is in the “sex class” not the intellectual or professional class. When women do achieve these positions, they are reminded that men can choose to see them as sexual fancy dress costumes instead. (Much of the grotesque misogyny which emerged a couple of years ago on the Uni Lad website involved male students discussing female academics in explicit terms, which accompanied resentful and violent language; another apparent example of sexualisation as a way of denying women symbolic power.)

I’m not suggesting that these club nights be banned. Nor am I saying that anyone who attends them is automatically sexist, or doesn’t believe in women’s education. It’s not my business to tell female students what they should or shouldn’t wear to have a good time. But some of the imagery around these parties depresses me, and I think it ties into deep social attitudes to women and their place in society.

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