Sorting out the tangled jumble of ideas that together define feminism can be a head-scratching experience. “We aren’t just sexual commodities,” some of them say, as they strip down to their lingerie.
An “I’m Spartacus” moment took place at Cornell University the other day, but because it was led by a young woman who grew up in a sex-drenched culture, it was more like an “I’m Victoria’s Secret” moment.
“Strip, everybody,” said senior Letitia Chai after removing her clothes down to her bra and panties to deliver her thesis. The Cornell Daily Sun reports that 28 of 44 students present doffed their clothing in solidarity.
Chai was reacting to the systematic oppression of being asked whether it was a great idea to deliver a lecture on the refugee crisis while wearing skimpy cut-offs. The professor of the class, “Acting in Public: Performance in Everyday Life,” was trying to do Chai a favor; college boys, like boys in general, are easily distracted by the sight of female flesh and are less likely to process what a woman is saying when they’re leering at her body parts.
Moreover, to the extent a college professor’s job is to prepare young people for the real world by gently nudging them away from teen habits and toward the way adults who take their careers seriously behave, the pedagogue was providing Chai with useful counseling. A year at Cornell costs a bit more than $70,000, and it is axiomatic that a degree from such an Ivy League university is mainly seen, these days, as a method for enhancing students’ value on the job market. College students need to be taught extremely basic skills like how to write an email, so it isn’t obvious that they understand that they shouldn’t show up for a job dressed like their last gig was prowling Eighth Avenue asking men, “Want a date?”
The professor in question is, it turns out, a woman, Rebekah Maggor (a specialist in theater that “questions entrenched power structures and pushes the boundaries of our contemporary political conversation”). Chai says Maggor asked her, “Is that really what you would wear?” mentioning that Chai’s cutoffs were “too short” and that she was making “a statement” with her scanty attire. Asked by Maggor what her mother would think of her outfit, Chai replied memorably, “My mom is a feminist, gender and sexuality studies professor. She’s fine with my shorts.” In an e-mail to the Sun, the professor said, “I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress. I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decision.” And what was Chai’s decision? “I’m going to give the best damn speech of my life,” said the college senior.
A YouTube video captures that speech, in which Chai pleads for “solidarity with individuals like myself who have been asked to question ourselves, specifically our appearance for the comfort of others. The only question this has led me to ask is, how much longer we need to put up with this nonsense. . . . I am more than Asian,” she says, kicking off her shoes. “I am more than a woman,” she adds, unzipping and removing her shorts. “I am more than Letitia Chai,” she says, taking off her shirt. “I am a human being. And I ask you to take this leap of faith, to take this next step, or rather this next strip, in our movement, and to join me in revealing to each other and to seeing each other for who we truly are: members of the human race.” Then she whispers, “Strip everybody.”
As students apparently follow her lead (they aren’t seen on the video), she adds, “Rejoice, we are so triumphant, but most importantly we are equals. . . . I hope that this is only the beginning of a conversation that I did not think that we still had to have, but we do, and we are here to make it continue.” As my colleague Jay Nordlinger points out, WFB would have asked, “Why stop at the underwear?”
Chai calls the principle in question a “huge societal issue” and adds that the campus Title IX office contacted her about the incident, but she has not yet made a federal case about her oppression. In accordance with today’s strange campus customs, Chai obtained prior administrative approval for her act of rebellion, having cleared it in advance with the director of the college scholar program and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
A casual observer might note that there is a fine line between public empowerment and public embarrassment, given that the video has generated hundreds of jokes and rude comments. Chai seems also to have guaranteed that the episode will define her in Google searches for some time to come, perhaps for the rest of her life. Is being notorious for what she looks like in her underwear going to be liberating or constraining as she sets about whatever course she chooses? Assuming that women have the right to take their clothes off in front of a crowd, are they wise to do so, or do they then merely reduce themselves to exhibitionists who like to be gawked at? Is delivering a talk in your lingerie really a great way to get across the idea that “I am more than a woman”? If being expected to wear a normal amount of clothing constitutes an unfair, sexist double standard, why not stroll around campus in a bikini at all times, not just when delivering a thesis? Are there any grownups at Cornell willing actually to tell undergraduates that their most prized ideas are amazingly dumb?
After two generations of tutelage from people like Chai’s mother, that “gender and sexuality studies professor,” it’s becoming routine for young women educated at the nation’s best universities to claim that it’s empowering to be choked in a porn video or hoisted in the air and beaten while wearing nothing but a bikini. When the youthful desperation to attract attention by any means available unites with the feminist imperative to make the most of one’s sexuality, confused young women effectively volunteer for exploitation. Unfortunately for them, today a youthful indiscretion can follow you forever.