About Those Banners at Old Dominion

The culture we live in affects how we behave. Words matter. Even unfunny jokes scrawled on bedsheets.

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I wonder what the incoming freshmen at Old Dominion University and their parents felt when they saw the banners hanging from a fraternity house over the weekend: “Rowdy and Fun, Hope Your Baby Girl Is Ready for a Good Time.” “Freshman Daughter Drop Off,” and “Go Ahead and Drop Off Mom Too.”

The signs provoked an instant backlash. They drew condemnation from Old Dominion’s president, and caused the national fraternity to suspend its local chapter. And the furor also led some commentators to conclude that the outrage was largely misplaced. My colleague Conor Friedersdorf makes perhaps the strongest version of this argument.

“How did we reach a place,” Conor writes, “where Local Frat Makes Crude Joke causes staffers at the BBC, CNN, The Washington Post and USA Today to spring into action? The answer begins with one interpretation of the banners. For some observers, they aren’t just vulgar, rude, suggestive, bawdy, ribald, derogatory, or uncouth––they’re an example of ‘rape culture.’” Conor then suggests that the anger over these banners is disproportionate to the provocation.

It is understandable to feel exhausted by all the outrage, so much of which seems superficial and insincere. And it’s reasonable to conclude that taking down a couple of crass banners isn’t going to solve the real and persistent problems of sexual violence—on college campuses or anywhere else.

It’s certainly true that, as Reason’s Robby Soave put it, “no specific person is being maligned, threatened, or disparaged” by the signs at Old Dominion. But it is more difficult to see how he reaches the conclusion that they were, therefore, “not very offensive.” It’s precisely the erasure of individuality—the targeting of baby girls, freshmen girls, and their mothers—that’s problematic, and yet it’s the same mechanism that’s being offered up as an excuse.

To downplay the banners as meaningless also ignores what culture actually is and where it comes from.

Culture is inextricable from language. We, as individuals and as societies, establish identities around the words used in private conversations, the ones shouted on banners, and those printed in magazines. And the notion that foolish people doing thoughtless things isn’t newsworthy is absurd.

Outrage flows freely on college campuses—sometimes indiscriminately, but also frequently quite pointedly. Signs like those at Old Dominion are, sadly, neither novel nor particularly unusual. What is different is that, this time, the social acceptability of “boys being boys” at the expense of the dignity of the women around them is finally changing, or at least being questioned. And if we have indeed reached a place where some thoughtless people get called out for using the language of a culture that normalizes the objectification of and violence against women, that may be progress.

The suggestion that women should suppress their anger in deference to grown men who want to marginalize them in the name of “a little fun” is childish. I can't help but think of Amy Poehler’s famous line: I don’t fucking care if you like it.

The argument that the outrage over the banners is misplaced seems to rest on the premise that such “jokes” are a distinct phenomenon from the prevalence of rape on college campuses. But is that right?

Were the banners stupid? Yes. Are they worthy of international attention? Yes, but not because the stupid banners are the point. “It’s easy to grandstand against frat boys with crass signs,” Conor wrote. “Words they thoughtlessly scrawl on bed sheets do not belong at the center of our discourse.”

Perhaps not. Who wants to sit around talking about a joke that isn't even funny? Conor suggests we instead focus on the “core problem of rape” instead. But to ignore the manifestations of rape culture—some of which happen to be unfunny jokes scrawled on bedsheets by college students—when they are literally spelled out in front of us, is a statement of values in and of itself.

Calling out objectionable language targeting women and pursuing deeper solutions to sexual violence are not mutually exclusive goals. In fact, they are complementary. But there’s something more consequential at play here, too. That the dust-up at Old Dominion made international headlines may indicate the outrage cycle is ever-churning and the bawdy tastes of cable news are unflinching—but it also hints at something worthwhile: that how women feel might finally be worthy of attention, and even corrective action, on college campuses and in wider culture.