No doubt someone will think of a better name for the current debacle at my alma mater, but I was reminded immediately of our last major kerfuffle: Phamgate.
Before I get into any kind of reasoned analysis of what’s going on at Wellesley right now and of the Internet’s reaction to it, I want to make one thing perfectly, inescapably clear:
If you dismiss survivors of sexual assault—or any kind of trauma—as “sheltered,” “weak,” or “whiny,” then you are a piece of human garbage. With that out of the way:
This, right here. Caroline tackles the whole “but it’s art!” argument way better than I did.
[Trigger Warning: sexual assault]
It’s no surprise that I love my alma mater. I graduated from Wellesley College and I’m incredibly grateful for all the people, subjects, and ideas Wellesley exposed me to. Being one of the more prestigious and well-known liberal arts colleges, Wellesley as an institution is frequently mentioned in the media. However, these mentions are usually an aside—Hillary Clinton, graduate of Wellesley College; this study, conducted by Wellesley College professors, etc. I’ve learned long ago to cringe any time in the media that the Wellesley community is the focus of the story, rather than the Wellesley institution being a side note (See: Rolling Stone, Jeremy Pham). Whenever the media covers the Wellesley community, writers and anchors inevitably throw context and nuance out the window in favor of a sensationalist headline. The coverage of this goddamn statue was no different.
I first read about the Tony Matelli “Sleepwalker” statue being placed on a highly visible field on my campus through a few alums on Twitter and Facebook mid-day Tuesday. I couldn’t imagine how within 24-hours the statue would be all over the internet and national news.
It’s pretty remarkable, actually, how lacking the narrative surrounding this statue is. So much of this conversation is focused on “censorship” when the focus should be on how triggering this statue is for many members of the Wellesley community.
Let’s get into this word for a moment: trigger. When I and others talking and writing about how this statue has been a trigger for some community members and could be a trigger for others, we’re not using this word as a synonym for being grossed out or disliking the statue. “Trigger" is a widely accepted, clinical term used to describe the catalyst for involuntary memories or flashbacks to a trauma. This word is also associated with PTSD and other consequences of a traumatic event. Melissa Harris-Perry, in the beginning of her open letter to Richard Mourdock describes her own triggers and how she copes with them (tw: sexual assault).
So when we talk about the “Sleepwalker” and its role as a trigger, we’re not just talking about some people not liking the artwork. We’re talking about members of the Wellesley community being harmed by the artwork. This petition that a current student started and over 500 members of the Wellesley community (myself included) have signed simply asks the college to move the statue into the Davis Museum and prioritize the safety and security of individuals who have been and may be triggered by it.
No one is demanding that the statue be destroyed or even suggesting that it should be taken off campus! The only thing the petition asks of the administration is that it move the statue into the museum so individuals can choose whether they want to see it or not.
And honestly, had Lisa Fischman, Davis Museum Director, actually responded to the concerns of the students and community members who signed this petition, this issue would not have blown up the way it did. What is it with the college administration that they can’t fucking listen to the students and engage in actual dialogue with them? The purpose of Wellesley College first and foremost should be to serve, protect, and inspire its students. No matter how much I love my Wellesley experience, any interactions I or any of my friends have had communicating with the administration were sore disappointments.
Fischman’s response to the petition that “Art has an extraordinary power to evoke personal response, and to elicit the unexpected” completely ignored the actual concerns laid out in the petition and was a condescending lecture on the “power” of art. We know that art has the power to evoke personal responses. That’s exactly what we’re concerned about. Since the creation of this petition, at least two members of the Wellesley community have identified themselves (anonymously) as having been triggered by this statue. At least one of these individuals experienced a panic attacks after seeing it. These are the personal responses people have had. Should we not be considerate of their right to feel safe?
I fully believe Matelli or the curator of this exhibit wanted to provoke responses and engagement with this piece itself and the exhibition as a whole. I believe they were expecting responses of humor, curiosity, and possibly disgust. I also believe one of the effects they were hoping for was that the statue would startle, inspire dialogue, and possibly challenge conceptions around art. But what are the power dynamics between the people the statue is supposed to startle, the dialogue it’s supposed to elicit, and the conceptions it’s supposed to challenge? In a way, this discussion reminds me of the questions around rape jokes: do these jokes challenge rape culture and address how fucked up our society is surrounding issues of sexual assault? or do these jokes just make fun of survivors? Similarly, with the “Sleepwalker”, the piece probably does inspire nuanced dialogue around human perception and possibly challenges the way we view reality… if it were placed within the context of the Matelli exhibition as a whole. But as it stands, a lone statue of a man in his underwear with his arms outstretched, placed in such a prominent area of campus without the context of the rest of the collection, is triggering. All of the conversation around this piece and how students are “censoring” art ignores this fact that individuals have been harmed by it and it is the responsibility of the Wellelsey College community to support these individuals and do as much as we can to make sure they feel safe. The safety of the students on campus in particular should be prioritized as the vast majority of these students spend 3.5-4 years on campus, which is an extension of their home.
Many people writing and commenting on the numerous articles about this statue and this petition frame the issue around how students and community members signing this petition are “censoring” art. Some of the assertions are so hyperbolic that they compare this petition that, again, only asks the administration to move the statue inside, to actions inflicted and positions taken by the Taliban, John Ashcroft, and Adolf Hitler. Talk about Godwin’s Law, right? Others have called us prudes, entitled, misandrists, and unable to handle the “real world”. Some people say that identifying this piece as a trigger makes a “mockery” of “real” sexual assault survivors. Some people say that anyone who finds this piece triggering should “get over it” or get therapy. Some people say that since anything can be a trigger, it’s useless to address this one. A fellow Wellesley College alumna has even implied that because students in Pakistan cannot have statues on their campus that Wellesley students shouldn’t be so silly as to protest this one.
All of these assertions derail the conversation away from the actual concerns of the Wellesley community toward narratives that paint these concerns as frivolous and ignorant. These narratives are a sexist portrayal of women and women’s issues. Sexual assault is most definitely a gendered crime. Yes, men are also survivors and women are also perpetrators. However, the vast majority of victims and survivors are women and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. 1 in 6 women have experienced rape or sexual assault at least once in their lives. That figure is significantly higher for women of color and transwomen. Talking about the prevalence and consequences of sexual assault is important. Talking about triggers is important. These issues are not juvenile complaints. They are issues that affect real lives.
When someone is sexually assaulted, they do not get to choose their triggers, just like they did not get to choose to be assaulted. Dismissing the fact that some survivors actually are triggered by this statue and calling the concern that the community has around this statue being a trigger a “mockery” of “real” sexual assault survivors perpetuates rape culture. This narrative puts in place a hierarchy of victimhood. Survivors who behave in a way that society deems acceptable are believed and supported. While survivors who react to and process their traumas differently are not believed or considered “irrational”. This policing of how one should act and respond as a sexual assault survivor is just another way patriarchy seeks to control women. Painting certain triggers as acceptable and others as not is damaging to survivors and their experiences. Many survivors do go to therapy and try to move on from their traumas. But it is not up to us to dictate how quickly and in which form they must heal. It is our responsibility as a compassionate community to help survivors with what they need by helping to remove things that are or may be triggering to them. For this statue in particular, it isn’t even an issue where someone is triggered by something that couldn’t have been predicted or prevented. It’s fairly obvious how this statue is triggering: life-like, life-size rendering of a man in nothing but his underwear with arms outstretched, placed in a highly trafficked and prominent area of campus with no clear connection to a larger exhibition. It isn’t, say a portrayal of a season that may trigger someone (one of Melissa Harris-Perry’s triggers). How the placement of this piece can and is triggering is easily understandable. So, the petition asking it to be moved inside is an entirely appropriate reaction to the piece and a respectful, pro-active steps community members are taking to ensure the safety of well-being of others.
Painting the concern the community has around this statue as somehow not important because there are students who have liberties suppressed in Pakistan reminds me a bit of the backlash for articles about Miley Cyrus’s appropriative performance at the VMAs. “Why aren’t we talking about Egypt?!” people would exclaim. To that, I asked, “Can’t we talk about both?” Can’t we be interested in more than one thing? And honestly, for some people, the revolution in Egypt does not affect their day-to-day lives, but White artists consistently appropriating Black culture and implicitly linking promiscuousness or criminality to Black bodies does affect some people’s day-to-day lives. So acting as if the Wellesley community being concerned about triggers that may affect community members is somehow “solipsistic” and less important than issues in the “real world” is dismissive and silencing. I care about how this statue has triggered members of the Wellesley College community. I also care about Piers Morgan and his show transphobically trashed Janet Mock. I also care about how George Zimmerman is profiting off of his fame as a child murderer the week Trayvon Martin would have turned 19. I also care about the impending burst of the housing bubble in mainland China and it’s possible economic collapse. I care about a lot of things! Choosing to write, tweet, petition about how this statue triggers people does not make any of those other things I care about less important.
And as far as those of us signing the petition being prude misandrists?
One of the bitter ironies of this whole thing is the privileging of male bodies, by both the Wellesley administration and the media covering this issue. Wellesley College is an institution that was created to foster the intellectual growth of young women. It has since become one of the most recognized and celebrated liberal arts colleges that has graduated some of the most successful and powerful women in politics and business. While Wellesley does tend to get hung up on the more traditional, capitalist definitions of success, the fact that it is an institution aimed at encouraging this success among women—who have been historically excluded from these areas—is a powerful confrontation to patriarchy. Yet even in this environment, which should be prioritizing the safety and security of its (mostly) women students, the institution finds it more worthwhile to privilege the placement of a fake male body over the safety and security of real life female students. Media coverage of this entire issue that frames the concerns of the community as “censorship” ultimately supports the patriarchal assertion that men’s bodies, no matter how invasive or triggering, inherently have a right to occupy women’s spaces.
I love Wellesley but I can still criticize it. I appreciate art but I can still criticize it.
Found this lovely home in #sf that looks kind of like a building at #wellesley.
we're screw-ups. I'm a screw-up and I plan to be a screw-up until my late 20s, maybe even my early 30s.
25-year-old east coast women's college graduate with a laptop and no original thoughts.