Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Legs Fiasco, or How to Alienate a Student

The offending image
Yesterday afternoon I tweeted angrily (Storify here) about my "engineering communications" professor. He made a poor choice of image for a presentation, for terrible reasons, then made problematic commentary on the image... and when I explained after class that this made me uncomfortable, he proceeded to pull several textbook derails on the conversation.
Two quick notes:
  1. In the interests of transparency, I'll admit I didn't like this prof to begin with. He's a terrible teacher who gives terrible presentations - reminiscent of my first powerpoints at 10, full of overdone animations, annoying sounds and bad clip art. But I would have taken issue with anyone who did what he did.
  2. The picture's original context is getting in the mood for sex by taking a relaxing scented bubble bath. And in that context, I think the picture actually makes a lot of sense.
My issues lie with its use in this presentation:
It's objectification: the picture isn't of a woman enjoying a bath - it's a pretty pair of legs and nearly more. In my search for the image, I came across several NSFW pictures of women in bathtubs. A lot of them would have been better choices because at least they were about the woman in the bath. Breasts in and of themselves aren't generally offensive - turning a woman into an object is. (probably NSFW example). Plus, this is an example of the trite "sex sells" mantra: using female bodies to attract the presumably male attention/gaze

It's wildly inappropriate for the setting. This is a professional communication course, and this image would not be appropriate for a boardroom. Rather than being just a neutral image, it marginalizes and others any women present in the room (and gay men too, I suspect).

It's completely irrelevant. The prof used the picture on a slide where he talked about Archimedes' famous Eureka moment, on the basis that both involve someone in a bath. Right, just like this picture (a baby in a bubble bath). Why not just use one of the MANY drawings of Archimedes in the bath instead?

His reasoning is sexist. He explained that he "wanted a picture of an old greek man in the bath" (look to the right!), but that it wasn't easy to find (5 seconds and google, I promise), and he thought we'd prefer this instead. Hmm... way to ignore the 30% of women in your class. And we wonder why woman feel shut out of STEM???

When this picture was used as the background to a slide, I was annoyed. And I made a note to myself to speak with him after class. But when I heard his reasoning for the image, and when he made jokes and told us this was a good technique to engage the audience by using something provocative to keep their attention, I nearly blew my stack. 

I came within inches of standing up and interrupting him to object, or at least stalking out. Only the fast that I was so angry I would have been barely coherent stopped me, plus I knew I would speak with him after class. That was when I sent the first tweet.

The rest of class was spent trying not to get caught glaring at the prof. When it ended, I made my way up and expressed how I was uncomfortable with his use of the picture because of the objectification of the woman-

He cut me off to ask me why I assumed the picture was of a woman. Now I'm all for breaking stereotypes and acknowledging differences in personal appearance, but I think we all know this is intended to portray a woman's legs.
WE KNOW. There are plenty of societal/gender-typical clues (shaved legs, bubble bath, candles, toe ring).  If he didn't know, he's either too ignorant to be teaching the class, willfully blind or a derailing jerkass. (I'm thinking b & c.) 

Plus, from the jokes the prof made, it's clear he acknowledged that most people would read the legs as female. Let's be honest: the chances of a similar serious picture of a man existing are extremely low. Try googling "bubble bath legs" and see what I mean. (It's pretty outrageous, if totally unsurprising.)

I tried to keep the conversation going by pointing out some of the above, and bringing up other concerns, but he was bound and determined to be right. To make sure he "won" the conversation, he used derail after derail. I think his thoughts can be summed up as follows:
  • I'm going to accuse you of sexist thinking and make the conversation about a largely irrelevant detail.
  • Your feelings aren't valid because I interpreted the picture differently.
  • I'm not sexist, so you must be being silly/oversensitive. (conveyed by tone and implied in a lot of what he said)
  • I'm going to interrupt you and talk over you constantly. Since I'm so generous, you can say a couple words every now and then.
  • Oh, and I'm also going to take the conversation in whatever tangentially related direction I want, to tell you stories from my (clearly more important) life, nevermind your concerns or opinions.
  • What I did was totally fine, because in the real world marketing people do it all the time! (*extra points for the condescending implication that I, as a woman, wouldn't know about women's bodies being used to sell everything from toothpaste to car insurance)
  • Well, maybe your "upbringing & religious background" influenced your reaction.  (*extra points for assuming my background must be somehow 'wrong' because I disagree with you)
  • It's university! We're just trying to expose you to new ideas & ways of doing things. (*extra points for pretending that his centuries-old sexism is new and edgy)
  • Well I know a female professor who teaches a course in exactly this sort of thing: gender in design
    • (or was it gender and design? Either way I can find no record that this course exists at my school. Not saying he's lying, but I suspect some heavy exaggeration. And even if it does exist, and even if the female prof agrees with him that's using the image was fine, that doesn't somehow 'cancel out' my opinion or render it invalid)

From the very beginning, our "conversation" was about him forcing me to justify and explain and dissect my discomfort. But I don't have to justify my discomfort and anger for it to be real. You can't deny my lived experience because your privilege allows you to not see it.

It was hardly a productive conversation, and I doubt I'll try again with him. It's not worth my mental well-being to deal with someone so convinced that he's right about what is and isn't sexist. From now on, I'm going to sit in the back of those lectures, and pay as little attention as I can get away with. 

But I'm still happier having acted than I would have been letting it go. That's something I've realized is really important to me: that I hold myself accountable to stand up for what I believe in, even when it's hard and not fun, and even when your prof puts you down for it.  As I said on twitter, sometimes it's about standing up and being counted, even if nothing changes.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly - thank you to everyone who supported me about this yesterday. I'm so grateful. 

To everyone reading this: if you could take a moment to comment or share, that would be wonderful. Maybe we'll reach someone who'll react differently next time someone questions their actions. Thank you.


  1. I'll always respect you for how much you stand up for your own opinions, even if I disagree. Don't lost that passion.

    1. Thank you! It drives my mother nuts - she keeps reminding me that I can't change everyone's minds. But for me it's about my integrity as well as being a visible voice for bystanders and fence-sitters to see, just as much as it is about changing minds. I mean, changing minds is awesome - but I don't go into this sort of conversation thinking that not changing someone's mind is a loss. I'd have a lot of losses if I did :)