Columbia University and Barnard College created a stir this month by filming what has been described as “a feminist pornographic film” in Columbia’s Butler Library to fight what they see as “gender tension” at the school. The film called “Initiatiøn,” was billed as a feminist statement exploring “the rituals of American Ivy League secret societies, to the point of hysteria, highlighting our culture’s perception of female desire.” It somehow made this ambiguous point by showing the women engaging in fondling, tweaking, and rubbing eggs on their bodies in the Butler library.
Now I admit that I am a middle-aged, Mid-western-born male professor who spends most of his academic time in the 18th Century, but I am confused. The students condemned the library because it had only names of males on its facade, proclaiming that “Butler is an extremely charged space — the names emblazoned on the stone facade are, for me, a stimulant for resistance.”
Columbia art and history major Coco Young explained that the library was the symbol of sexism because of the gender of those emblazoned on its walls. Butler is a neoclassical structure named as the University’s former President Nicholas Murray Butler. The names on the facade are a rather obvious and austere group: Along the front and sides of the library are inscribed the names of Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Tacitus, Saint Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Voltaire, and Goethe. Notably, the most recent is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who was born 1749. The names reflect the neoclassical structure and the core curriculum of the University when it was constructed.
My guess is that the film is being the most closely scrutinized at fraternities, but that is clearly not the purpose. I have a hard time as an academic squaring the objection to the recognition of these ancient and classical philosophers as threatening or insulting to women. Columbia has long advanced female scholars and female scholarship. The university honors many such figures in different parts of the campus. Academia has been enriched by such voices and has evolved as women have thrown off the restrictions and prejudices that once existed. However, that does not mean that classical philosophers should be denounced for their gender anymore than female scholars should have been barred at one time for their gender.
Columbia is a curious site for such a protest given its history. Indeed, Barnard is named after Columbia President F. A. P. Barnard who fought for years to admit women at Columbia over objections from both students and faculty. He first called for such admissions in 1879, just 14 years after the Civil War. Finally, in 1883 after continual campaigning by Barnard, the Trustees adopted the Collegiate Course for Women. In 1886, the school awarded its first degree to a woman, a PhD in astronomy to Wellesley College graduate Winifred Edgerton. There remained opposition to women going to class and efforts to reverse the gains made by Barnard. In 1887, the school awarded a B.A. degree to Mary Hankey upon her completion of the Collegiate Course. In 1889, the trustees approved the establishment of Barnard College and in 1890 they hired a female botanist, Emily Gregory, to instruct Barnard students.
Like many institutions, there is a stratigraphic history of Columbia that shows the steady increase in female scholars and students. All universities now celebrate that diversity. It is possible to honor ancient and classical voices as well as more modern voices at such institutions. It takes a degree of maturity to understand this history while honoring all of these brilliant contributions. I do not read Locke or Plato through the lens of gender politics. These are philosophers who introduce students to foundational concepts of government, religion, and society. I certainly do not view their mere mention on library walls as a symbol of sexism or repression.
Yet, Barnard College senior Sara Grace Powell insisted “Butler is an extremely charged space — the names emblazoned on the stone façade are, for me, a stimulant for resistance . . . I work in Butler but sometimes feel suffocated by it … The point was to transgress the relative conservatism (and it’s history) of the space with this hysterical intervention.” Wow, I can understand not liking neoclassical architecture but feeling “suffocated” by the fact that there are male names on the façade of the building? I also remain confused how that feeling of suffocation leads to tweaking and what has been criticized as a soft porn shoot at a place of learning.
Frankly, the film strikes me as adolescent and irresponsible. It certainly bring a new meaning to Dorothy Parker’s view of Ivy League women when she said “If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”
Vogue contributor and the author of the Slutever blog Karley Sciortino helped create the film and encouraged people, if they liked her feminist porn to check out “the most recent was a blow-job instruction video that I made with Sandy Kim last May.” I am not sure if that is considered a feminist porn film but I think I will pass.