During the NCAA men’s basketball season, the Kansas Jayhawks were losing to their arch-rivals, the Missouri Tigers. Ostensibly to inspire the team, a female KU fan took a “selfie” of her considerable cleavage and posted it at #KUBOOBS.
The KUBOOBS website (so, yes, the tweet quickly became a website; who could have predicted that that would happen) recounts the effect of this selfless “selfie” in this way: “On a Saturday afternoon in a sports cathedral known as Allen Fieldhouse our beloved Kansas Jayhawks were facing certain defeat from the evil Missouri Tigers in a final battle for supremacy. Thousands of Jayhawk faithful watched helplessly as the border ruffians from Missouri sought to pillage and disgrace our beautiful cathedral. Far above the Golden Valley glorious to view, one woman had enough. She channeled the power inherent in all true Jayhawk fans to resurrect the Jayhawks from a 19-point deficit to a stunning one-point victory! That power was KU Boobs.”
Not to be outdone, female students at schools across the Big 12 and SEC conferences began to create similar websites to which they posted similarly focused, faceless “selfies.”
When I first saw the story, I suspected that the original photo and the subsequent websites of other photos were actually the work of male students surreptitiously using their cell phones as cameras—in a sort of upside-down (that is, right-side-up) version of the “up-skirt” photos that recently became the focus of a widely reported Massachusetts court case.
But then the Huffington Post, in a story on this latest “college craze,” quoted Rachel Smalter-Hall, a “Lawrence, Kansas-based librarian/feminist theorist,” who had a very different take on it: “It’s all about who’s in the driver’s seat, and in the case of #kuboobs, it’s the ladies all the way. #kuboobs has emerged from the throes of March Madness: a frenzied, cultish worship of the male body and its physical prowess. It’s a masculine sphere that traditionally excludes women (just like those pricks who assume girls don’t watch the games!). But with #kuboobs, ladies are here to announce their fandom, loud and proud, and to seize their own place among the Apollonian body worship that’s synonymous with the NCAA basketball tournament.”
Really? Okay, perhaps. But, really?
Let me be clear: I am not in any way seeking to further the false correlation between expressions of sexuality and sexual assaults, the false argument that sexual assaults are about sexuality rather than about violent aggression.
But, at the heart of that violent aggression is clearly an objectification of women (or of men, when they are the victims).
So to celebrate photos that reduce young women to their cleavage–because that is all that is shown in these “selfies”–as an expression of feminist self-assertion, seems to me to be, literally and figuratively, very short-sighted. It begs the question of whether bug-eyed ogling is something rather than bug-eyed ogling if there is a theoretical rationale for what is being ogled.
And, it doesn’t seem to me that these selfies are at all comparable to the media focus on male basketball stars. For one thing, we do not focus so exclusively on any single body part of the players. No one looks at the photo of a hand and immediately identifies it as Lebron James’ hand or looks at a calf and immediately identifies it as Carmelo Anthony’s. Never mind photos simply of players’ chests or groins.
We have seen in the public debate over sexual assaults in the military that it is excruciatingly difficult to make any substantive progress on changing the culture that is causing the assaults themselves and then causing those in the chain of command to minimize the significance of the crimes.
Within the past weeks, the complaints about the mishandling of sexual assault cases on our campuses have finally achieved enough critical mass that the cases are now the focus of national attention—legally, politically, and culturally.
As with the military cases, what happens next will depend as much on public opinion as on the facts of the individual cases. And so, whether I am missing the boat on the feminist implications of #kuboobs or not, I don’t think that it is an especially helpful phenomenon, especially at this moment, because it reinforces the notion that sexual assaults on campus are somehow just another form of hormone-fueled college hijinks—and not the crimes of violence that they actually are.