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When Irony Backfires

Harvard students aren't too cool to be sexist

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images Entertainment

On Saturday, Harvard University will keep it classy by hiring the rapper “Tyga” to headline its spring music concert, “Yardfest.” The 23-year-old Los Angeles native is best known for lyrics such as “Shut the fuck up and jump on this dick / Nothing but a motherfucking skank / Fuck what you talking ’bout and fuck what you think,” and for filming a porno to accompany his career-making single “Rack City” (dubbed a “monster strip-club anthem” by The New York Times). To their credit, students weren’t happy with the choice—Harvard senior Leah Reis-Dennis started a petition in protest and collected over 2,000 signatures, inducing Yardfest organizers to move the act out of its prime-time slot. 

The student committee that picked Tyga wasn’t the first to dismiss flagrant misogyny with a wave of the hand, and it won’t be the last: Harvard has previously hosted Kid Cudi, of “Poke Her Face” fame; Yale has featured the Ying Yang Twins, whose “Whisper Song” suggests something that hardly sounds consensual; and the University of Pennsylvania invited, of all people, Akon—who, among other charming antics, simulated sex with a 15-year-old girl onstage.

It’s not that American college students don’t care about respecting women, though all these institutions have their struggles with gender norms and sexual violence. It’s not that they think rape doesn’t happen to their ilk—as the horrors of Steubenville reminded us, it happens everywhere. Rather, these best and brightest have all made the same miscalculation, assuming irony supercedes offence. As Yale’s “Spring Fling” committee put it in 2010: “while the Ying Yang Twins may appear offensive, most who listen to their music, regardless of whether they are fans, understand that the songs are too ridiculous to be taken at face value.” It seems the Harvard students who invited Tyga took the same stance: It’s all cool as long as it’s a joke.

This odd and arrogant hypocrisy has gotten a lot of airtime recently. If writer-actress Lena Dunham is a self-styled “voice of her generation,” she is also the face of what has been termed “Hipster Sexism,” due to a tongue-in-cheek Obama election ad telling women that their “first time shouldn’t be with just anybody, you wanna do it with a great guy.” As coined by Alissa Quart in New York, “Hipster Sexism consists of the objectification of women but in a manner that uses mockery, quotation marks, and paradox: the stuff you learned about in literature class.” Dunham is a feminist; her ad had an overtly liberal and pro-women message. But does that—along with her cleverness—exonerate what, from someone else, might have looked like classic objectification? Flash back to the image of a few thousand Harvard students gyrating to the words “Young money young money yeah we getting rich / I got ya grandma on my dick.” That audience doesn’t endorse those sentiments—indeed, it laughs at them—but by paying (a cool $40,000) to hear them, Harvard perpetuated them.

Before Hipster Sexism, there was “Hipster Racism,” which was first skewered on the blog Racialicious in 2007, and had a renaissance (also prompted by “Girls”) last year. Hipster Racism is the purview of those “who believe that not wanting to be racist makes it okay for them to be totally racist,” as Lindy West explained on Jezebel. Which suggests that even Lena Dunham, even well-meaning Harvard students, even twenty-somethings who wear thick glasses and discuss the post-modern-post-linear-post-imperial world over red wine, can be sexist and racist. Irony can be a way to call attention to injustices without turning off an audience or sounding holier-than-thou, but most of the time, it’s too easy for those artfully crafted layers of subversion to collapse into a heap. It’s pure hubris to think that because you know better, you can’t be part of the problem, or because you understand what you’re doing, you can’t be faulted for it. There’s no better (or worse) example of this than The Onion’s attempt to riff on Seth MacFarlane’s cringe-worthy, sexist performance at the Academy Awards by tweeting that nine-year-old Beasts of the Southern Wild star Quvenzhané Wallis was “a cunt.” The moral of the story is: Sometimes, you think you’re highlighting someone else’s bad behavior, but you’re actually just calling a little girl the c-word.

Back in the world of college campuses, another joke has recently turned on its owners: the term “SWUG,” or, “Senior Washed Up Girl.” A descriptor for college girls who have somehow “aged out” of social and sexual scenes dominated by younger peers, the term signified liberation from judgment and the embrace of “female camaraderie” to those who coined it. But “SWUG” has experienced an inexorable and depressing slide into the literal. At the beginning, self-identifying as “washed up” and unattractive to college men was an ironic way to say that you were way too cool to care—but two years after the phrase colonized Yale parlance, it basically seems to make young women feel washed up and unattractive to college men. A current senior who wrote a feature called “#SWUGNATION” in the Yale Daily News articulates this paradox even as she lets it define her. “We may try to reappropriate a term, but that’s much easier said than done,” she worries. “I like to think that I respect myself. Yet this whole SWUG thing is starting to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Can I call myself a SWUG if I want to be treated as something more?”

Putting everything in perspective, it must be said that no woman is “washed up” at 22. Likewise, Tyga is pretty middle-of-the-road where rappers are concerned. But it’s troubling that self-identified feminists throw regressive jokes around, and that colleges with progressive, egalitarian missions keep contracting offensive artists, year after year. While some students protest every time, the vast majority shrug—and go to the concert. It’s worth remembering that no combination of humor, nonchalance, and inner integrity can magically transcend our worst cultural sins. Sometimes, you go hear the music as a joke, and accidentally find yourself humming along.