Remaining stupid

This cartoon adorns the web page of the UvA Onderwijsconferentie – a conference on university education at the University of Amsterdam. Below the image, the words: “Surely, you wouldn’t want to remain stupid, would you?” It’s left up to your imagination to figure out how the female student is supposed to cure her stupidity. I hope you share my amazement at the fact that this cartoon is to be found on a university website – a website devoted to the relation between students and teachers at that.

I hope so, because here in The Netherlands, it does not seem to bother the persons in charge. Complaints have been filed about the sexist character of the cartoon, but the image is still online. It will remain here until Monday 16th October, the day of the conference, I guess.

To kindle a debate about the cartoon and the politics of representation, I wrote a piece for the university magazine, comparing it to a truly funny way of putting gender roles at our universities in the limelight (I’ll scan that image next week – it’s on my office door). Since I don’t yet know whether they are going to publish it – the conference is on Monday and the piece will perhaps not be considered news after that date – I decided to do an English translation and publish it here. [Dutch version below — published in a heavily cut version in the University Magazine.]

You wouldn’t want to remain stupid, would you?
Three older men look at you from a somewhat granular photo. The portrait oozes the atmosphere of an old boys’ network. The three gentlemen stand shoulder to shoulder, dressed in dark winter coats, suit and tie underneath. The photo is on the back page of a magazine published at the departure of the president of the University of Amsterdam, Sijbolt Noorda. Indeed, the gentleman on the right is recognizable as the president himself. Three words are printed in university font at the bottom of the page: “UvA – for Women.”

A campaign drawing attention to women’s position in academia is no luxury in the Netherlands. The Amsterdam University magazine Folia only last week reminded its readers that our country lags behind the rest of Europe where the number of women in academic positions is concerned. Less than ten percent of professors and research directors are women, and the number of women in science as a whole “has by no means reached desired levels yet.” Clearly, female students need to be encouraged to pursue a PhD, to stay in academia, to make a career at universities.

In this context, the choice of cartoon on a university website announcing a conference on education is surprising, to say the least. In the cartoon by the Dutch artist Peter van Straaten, we see a middle-aged male lecturer, dressed in a baggy suit – he would not have been out of place in the photo with the three gentlemen. We are invited to join his gaze at a female student. She looks down at the floor, as if in shame. Below the image the cartoon are the words: “Surely, you wouldn’t want to remain stupid, would you?” It is left to the reader’s imagination what the student should do to be cured of her stupidity.

The cartoon presents us with two stereotypes: that of the attractive yet unintelligent young woman, and that of the male, middle-aged lecturer who abuses his position to rediscover his youth. It surprised me, and many with me, that the University of Amsterdam chose this cartoon for a conference on education. In answer to our complaints, the organisation wrote that they aimed to challenge the stereotypical notion, current among the elderly and lecturers, that today’s students – and I quote – “who sometimes resemble the girl in the cartoon” are not motivated to learn and “consider all kinds of other activities more important.”

Upon a complaint by one of my colleagues, the project manager initially agreed to explore the possibilities of removing the cartoon from the website. Then, the organisation decided that it might be better to take our complaints to the press. A short piece appeared in Het Parool, an Amsterdam newspaper, in which our complaints were dismissed on the basis of my colleague’s cultural background. “The project manager tried to smooth things over by playing on cultural differences, but to no avail. The Canadian woman was not to be convinced of the irony of the cartoon.” Peter van Straaten’s agent had the last word in the article: “we will not conform our sense of humour to a woman from over there.”

I will not comment on the blatant xenophobia of this remark. Nor do I wish to discuss the delicate Dutch sense of humour. Nor would I dare to rekindle the recent world-wide discussion on cartoons and the freedom of the press. I merely wish to address the institutional context within which this cartoon was published. A university in a country where women’s participation in academia is still depressingly low, should know better. The three gentlemen in winter coats did know better: they tried to kindle a debate with a healthy dose of self-derision.

I therefore address the organisers of the UvA educational conference once more: at the very least, try to be aware of the institutional context in which you work. This cartoon is not on a calendar, it is on a university website. In the words of Peter van Straaten: “Surely, you wouldn’t want to remain stupid, would you?”

Je wilt toch niet dom blijven?
Drie wat oudere mannen kijken je aan vanaf een ietwat korrelige foto. Het portret ademt een sfeer van oude-jongens-krentenbrood. De drie heren zijn gekleed in dikke, donkere winterjassen, met daaronder een combinatie van jasje en dasje, en staan gebroederlijk naast elkaar. Het portret is afgedrukt op de achterpagina van de gids die bij het afscheid van de voorzitter van het College van Bestuur werd uitgegeven. De man rechts op de foto is te herkennen als Sijbolt Noorda zelf. Onder de foto staat in het font van de UvA-huisstijl te lezen: “UvA – For Women.”

Een dergelijke campagne is wel nodig ook. De Folia van twee weken geleden (nr. 6) herinnert ons er nog eens aan dat Nederland in Europa een achterhoedepositie inneemt wat betreft het aantal vrouwen in wetenschappelijke topposities (nog geen 10 procent). Dat geldt niet alleen voor de hoogleraren en onderzoeksdirecteuren; het aantal vrouwen in wetenschappelijke functies in het algemeen heeft “nog lang niet het gewenste niveau bereikt.”

In deze context is de keuze voor een cartoon van Peter van Straaten op website en kaarten van de UvA-onderwijsconferentie enigszins verrassend te noemen. In de cartoon zien we een oudere mannelijke docent, gekleed in een ruimzittend pak – hij had zo met de drie heren hierboven op de foto gekund. We volgen zijn blik naar een vrouwelijke student die uitdagend gekleed gaat. Zij kijkt beschaamd naar de grond. Onder de cartoon staat te lezen: “Je wilt toch niet dom blijven?” Wat de student zou moeten doen om van haar domheid te genezen, wordt aan de fantasie van de lezer overgelaten.

De cartoon toont ons twee stereotypen: dat van de aantrekkelijke doch onnozele jonge vrouw, en van de mannelijke docent van middelbare leeftijd die zijn positie misbruikt om zijn jeugd te hervinden. Het verbaasde mij, en velen met mij, dat de UvA nu juist deze cartoon uitkoos voor een conferentie over onderwijs. In antwoord op onze vragen schreef de organisatie dat zij bij ouderen en docenten de stereotype opvatting willen wegnemen dat de jonge generatie studenten – ik citeer – “die er soms uitziet zoals het meisje op de cartoon” ongemotiveerd zou zijn en “allerlei andere bezigheden belangrijker vindt.”

Na een klacht van mijn collega beloofde men in eerste instantie de mogelijkheden te onderzoeken de cartoon van de website te verwijderen. Daarna besloot de organisatie echter in al hun wijsheid om naar de pers te stappen. In het Parool verscheen een stukje waarin men onze klachten tracht te verklaren vanuit de culturele achtergrond van mijn collega. “Projectleider Lief Keteleer probeerde nog te sussen door het te gooien op cultuurverschillen, maar tevergeefs. De Canadese was niet te overtuigen van de ironie.” De agent van striptekenaar Peter van Straaten concludeerde: “we conformeren ons gevoel van humor niet aan een vrouw van verderop.”

Over de onverbloemde xenofobie en het seksisme van deze opmerking wil ik het hier niet hebben. Ook wil ik niet ingaan op ons fijnbesnaarde Nederlandse gevoel voor humor, of de merites van Peter van Straaten. Noch zou ik de recente wereldwijde discussie over persvrijheid en cartoons willen oprakelen. Het gaat mij hier om de institutionele context waarbinnen de cartoon wordt afgebeeld. Een universiteit in een land waar de deelname van vrouwen aan de wetenschap nog zo bedroevend laag is, zou beter moeten weten. De drie heren in winterjassen wisten beter, en trachtten met de nodige zelfspot de discussie te openen.

Ik wend me daarom nog één keer tot de organisatoren van de UvA onderwijsconferentie: wees je op zijn minst bewust van de context waarbinnen je een cartoon plaatst. Om met Peter van Straaten te spreken: “Je wilt toch niet dom blijven?“

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11 thoughts on “Remaining stupid

  1. I’m dumbstruck Kristine – that’s shocking. It’s amazing how little thought actually takes place in particular parts of universities eh?

  2. I don’t see the stereotype of the old professor trying to feel young you ascribe to this cartoon. I also don’t immediately equate the cartoon and caption with a sexual favour implication (if that’s what you mean but are not quite writing). I’m not saying that these aren’t there – I’m just providing my [male] reaction.

    That said, I do immediately regard the image as sexist and unwarranted. Poor taste and poor choice. It shouldn’t be there, end of story.

  3. Peacay, I have to admit I didn\’t think of sexual favour, I thought of our female students and wondered whom they could identify with in this image. How are we ever going to get more women to teach at our universities, if teaching is persistently represented in images such as this one. I thought of female students who dress like the student in the picture, and how they would feel if they saw it. Either the cartoon is sexist, or it pokes fun at middle-aged lecturers who supposedly think that all attractive female students are there to sleep with. Either way, I don\’t think it should be on a university website. I\’m glad you agree!

  4. Well, of course it’s sexual, but my primary objection to it was not that it is heteronormative (if that is what Peacay means by sexual favour) — my objection to it is that it depicts an attractive woman as “stupid” and as a sex object. It confirms stereotypes that a university should seek to challenge, especially if it wants to create an atmosphere in which more women stay in academia.

  5. I am sorry, Kristine, but I cannot see how this cartoon is offensive. Of course, this cartoon refers to stereotypes. But doesn’t it also question them? Is not the pathetic male character as offensive to men as the female character might be to women? As a Shakespeare scholar trained in dialogue, used to tease every possible meaning out of stereotypes like revengers and Moors, you will surely see that the cartoon is more complex than you say (as it is always difficult to see who is ridiculed in Van Straaten’s cartoons). How do you know as a fact that the young student, besides sexy and embarrassed, is also stupid? And that the teacher is not? He is asking the question, and my first response to the cartoon was that HE was the one being ridiculed for his desperate attempt to exert some kind of authority that he, with his baggy suit, his bald head, and his hanging shoulders, obviously does not have. The fun of the cartoon is that we don’t know what has been going on, we don’t know if the teacher is sighing out of justified frustration or begging for sexual favours. Van Straaten leaves us guessing, and I think you shouldn’t be tempted to favour one guess above another.
    I sympathize with your concern for the female position at Dutch universities, but I feel that you’re shooting at a fly with a shotgun here. Shouldn’t you rather question bigger issues (like the work pressure, for instance, which might keep women with children from attaining high positions, or might even make them flee Academia altogether in their thirties).

  6. Helmer, while I think you make good points (and were this not published on a University educational website I think they would have more merit) but you are suggesting a wider interpretation than that which is obvious.

    It’s irrelevant that the man is frumpy and bald – he is portrayed as holding the power and as possessing intelligence and to suggest that we are asked to perhaps interpret this cartoon as displaying his lack of intelligence is disingenuous. Sharpen your Occam’s Razor. The context is a University educational website, not a random image in a media publication (and even if it were elsewhere, it wouldn’t extinguish a simple ‘reading’ of the meaning, it would just mean that without additional context – a la University website – the argument for a different ‘reading’ gains a slightly better foothold).

    There is a suggestion that this is a reverse logic scenario that asks us to think a bit deeper but I still think that, even if the intent were to make fun of past(?) stereotypes, the more obvious interpretation is that the portrayal merely reinforces the power/sexual relationships.

    I see a modern girl dressed provocatively being chastised for poor academic performance. The simple interpretation, the one that jumped out at me immediately I saw it, is that because she is young, because she is sexually liberated and hip, she has no rightful place in educational facilities – she can’t succeed because of her identity – one more of the myriad portrayals in jest and in kind and in reality that have perpetually reinforced the notion that women are less capable intellectually.

    I definitely subscribe to the Spelke position.

    [Kristine, not sure what you mean about normative — I guess I thought you implied that the cartoon suggested that sexual favours might help the girl or whatever….that’s what I was saying that I didn’t see – no matter though!]

  7. Pingback: Carnival of Feminists No 25 - Philobiblon

  8. Very strange cartoon.

    A couple of comments:

    1. I’ve been out of school for several years now, and maybe things have changed (or maybe things are different in the Netherlands), but I don’t remember any students dressing like the woman in the cartoon.

    2. I assume the male is asking the question, but it is rather ambiguous. Either way, it’s an odd and insulting question. I think of “stupid” as roughly equivalent to low IQ, i.e., something you can’t change by more than a degree or two. Could the original be translated as “ignorant” – a word that suggests the possibility of learning and improvement?

  9. To Peacay: sorry, I completely misinterpreted what you meant – I thought you were thinking of sexual preference, my mistake entirely. Well yes, sexual favour is what I meant when I wrote that it is left up to your imagination what the student needs to do to be cured of her stupidity.

    To Wil’s point 2: yes, you’re right. Ignorant is a better translation. Stupid would be “stom” and “dom” is more like “ignorant” or “silly.” Our princess Maxima famously called crown prince Alexander “een beetje dom” – “a little silly” – but the meaning in the cartoon is more to do with ignorance, I guess.

    To Helmer: I really think that it is worth aiming my shotgun every once in a while. This cartoon, jokes made at work, a lack of role models, assumptions about the ways mothers function at their work — all these things are not without their effect on women’s carreers. A university website should be more careful about the images they use.

  10. I’m amazed at the discussion and the misinterpretation of the cartoon’s intention. I find it very funny (it has been sitting on my desk ever since I first saw it), and it seems obvious to me that it’s the male character who looks ridiculous, not the student. The whole point of the cartoon is that simply because of the way she looks and the way she’s dressed, he takes it for granted that she must be stupid. The cartoon brilliantly ridicules the guy’s sexism, and it’s very ironic that it’s being perceived as sexist itself.

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