Well, folks, the Harvard-Yale game is right around the corner, which means more blog posts about things that make us scratch our heads in confusion. As we’ve discussed before, this yearly event seems to magically summon problematic representations of gender and sexuality without fail. Somehow school spirit never ceases to turn into something akin to sexual aggression (we’ll see what the t-shirts end up looking like this year). Still, I was taken aback when I saw this poster advertising an event hosted by the Black Student Alliance at Yale:
“The Showdown: Annual Yale-Harvard Talent Showcase” features a number of well known performance ensembles from both campuses, but the designer(s) of this poster chose to feminize and sexualize their depiction of the rivalry between Harvard and Yale to pub their event. This struck me as an interesting choice, to say the least.
Why does this poster deserve a blog post? I think that images matter, and they say a lot about how we perceive others and ourselves. I wrote a blog response to ABHW’s poster for the “Fancy” event last year for the same reason. If nothing else, images that are meant to reflect communities that we belong to should give us a chance to reflect on the way those communities are imagined.
Of course, the poster for “The Showdown” isn’t nearly as blatant as last year’s “Veritas Bitch” H-Y shirt. However, it does clearly borrow from a tradition of hip-hop and popular iconography that relies on the sexualization of black women’s bodies. The viewer’s gaze is directed between the legs of the Crimson-and-denim-clad woman who is meant to represent Harvard. Rear end prominently displayed, the woman poses in such a way that is just suggestive enough to be ambiguous but nonetheless draws attention to her figure rather than any humanizing aspect of her person. Through her legs, we see a black woman wearing a Yale sweatshirt with her hand on one hip and the opposite leg outstretched. Are they preparing to engage in a dance off? That’s unclear, but the overall staging of the image renders it pretty irrelevant. It’s clear that we are supposed to focus on how the yearly rivalry between two of the oldest educational institutions in the country came to be embodied by two black women. I’d say that’s quite an interesting turn of events given the very white, very male histories of Harvard and Yale.
I’ll put it like this. If I had been asked when I was 14 to picture a Harvard student, it most certainly would have been a preppy looking white guy who had just jumped out of a Brooks Brothers catalog. If a 14 year old were asked this question today, they might imagine a young Mark Zuckerberg. If I had been asked to picture a black Harvard student, I would have thought of W.E.B. Du Bois. Obviously, the experiences of people of color at a particular institution cannot be encapsulated in a single image, nor should they be reduced to flat stereotypes. I’m hardly the one to say that every image of black students at Harvard should feature bespectacled and respectable young adults with their noses in their books. But that’s exactly the point. What it means to be a student of color, and certainly a woman of color, at an Ivy League institution is highly contested and our society hasn’t given us a lot to imagine that experience in a nuanced way. Is it too much to ask that we use our privileged positions to come up with more creative and thought-provoking representations of black students at Harvard and Yale? This image makes it all too clear that to tools we have been given to imagine and represent our own collective experiences are simply not enough, so let’s start to create our own.