Addressing Harvard-Yale Humor

And bringing back the spirit of the games

There is no denying that the annual Harvard-Yale game is a time to party and let loose. It is one weekend in the year where age old rivals let go of their inhibitions and their problem sets, and seniors ignore their impending thesis deadlines to engage in revelry and merriment. Friendly competition and ridiculous jokes abound on the football field, between the school bands, the spectators, in weekend acapella jams and parties and most prominently through merchandise. As my fellow intern Suzanna pointed out last year, this merchandise is a way to build school pride albeit tongue-in-cheek. But along with these traditions, the issue of problematic Harvard-Yale gear still persists.

This year, an independently run student business, Harvard State apparel is promoting a new kind of joke: the classist and sexist kind. One of their t-shirts quotes Nicki Minaj: “Yale You a Stupid Hoe.” The description on the website states: “Have you ever wanted to call Yalies “Stupid Hoes?” We sure have… Make sure that you aren’t just at the Game, but also beez in the trap, this November with this stylish tank.” In a publicity email, Harvard State describes life at their school: “State might not offer too many diplomas, but we have a kick ass time.”

On both counts, I fail to understand the “funny” part. In our culture, insults are often considered good jokes, but those insults are usually supported with a statement that allows us to laugh and acknowledge our shortcomings. It is part of what makes us human and what brings communities together. The statements on this apparel do not have punchlines, puns or other traits that constitute the structure of a joke.

One t-shirt simply states that by wearing it, we are calling Yalies (according to Oxford dictionary) stupid “promiscuous women” or women who have lots of sex. Sure, they may be quoting Nicki Minaj and there are many arguments for why her use of the words are either problematic or reclaiming a term normally used by men. But this is very clearly being used to insult the other team. H-Y gear is supposed to represent school spirit and not alienate half of the Harvard and Yale populations. In the same vein, we are labeling state schools as belonging to a lower intellectual and social class simply through the name “Harvard State” and the description offered along with it.

I want to be productive in this criticism. If we don’t get the joke, then lets offer up our own. The kind of joke that does not require labeling another group of people as stupid without ascribing any actual humor there. We recently held a contest at the Women’s Center asking for a t-shirt that was genuinely funny and still carried that spirit of competitiveness. Here is our winning shirt design:

I encourage everyone to stop by the Women’s Center and pick up a free t-shirt for themselves before the Harvard-Yale game next Saturday. This week, we are open 9:30- 5:30 pm Tuesday-Friday and 6-10 pm Tuesday and Wednesday.

As much as I feel strongly about the problematic nature of the shirts, I also think that the people who made them can offer up an appropriate defense. Whatever the reasoning behind these shirts, we can use this example to create a campus atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable, where women don’t have to look at a shirt and cringe because it is meant to target and insult their gender.

Perhaps a joke could be understood if there was an element of humor to it. Perhaps we could represent Harvard not as an elitist close-minded environment, but as an open, friendly, welcoming and fun-loving place that doesn’t need to degrade other communities to gain the upper hand in a competition. Then we can truly say that we deserve the title of winners at this year’s games.


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