During the last Eureka Week, EM published the article ‘My guide kissed someone from your group too, right?’, which was criticised by a student. EM responded to this in an editorial. This editorial, by editor-in-chief Wieneke Gunneweg, reads more as a justification of the initial article than a reflection on the important question brought up. It is a disappointing example of a failure to think critically about both journalistic and sexual norms. The supposed neutrality that is invoked, where readers are simply informed about what is happening in the world, doesn’t account for the complex functioning of language and discourse. Real reflection on power and its workings gets left out; this undermines the critical journalism that EM claims to be committed to.

Reports are not neutral

As you will hear in any Media Studies class, news reports are not neutral and objective reflections of reality but present a particular framing, choice of words and visual representation of people and events. This is necessary and cannot be avoided. As the cultural theorist Stuart Hall explained: “Things ‘in themselves’ rarely if ever have any one, single, fixed and unchanging meaning. Even something as obvious as a stone can be a stone, a boundary marker, or a piece of sculpture. (…) [W]e give things meaning by how we represent them.” Journalists, then, choose how to represent something. These are choices which are always political because they (re)produce a certain representation of social reality in which particular norms are inscribed. In that way, an article can indeed normalise something, as the student put forward in her critique. Any text inherently conveys a certain idea about what is normal and what is not.

Sexist stereotypes

The article in question uncritically reproduces sexist stereotypes in which women are objectified as sexual prey. The description of students as being “on the prowl” implies predatory behaviour rather than respectful and consensual flirting. This heteropatriarchal dynamic is not interrogated. As rape and sexual harassment are clearly rampant within student life, this seems a bad, even harmful angle to the story. Two out of three students are sexually harassed during their studies at EUR. One in ten female students are raped. This article does not do justice to this grave situation. Gunneweg writes that the article “painted a picture of the experiences of first-year students on that evening.” Given the omnipresence of sexually transgressive behaviour among students, as evidenced by EM’s own research, it seems likely that the particular picture painted was much too rosy.

Complaints can teach us something

In her book Complaint!, the philosopher Sara Ahmed describes how certain behaviours can be heard and dismissed as complaints. We can think of the critical student as voicing a complaint. Ahmed argues that complaints teach us about “the gap between an appearance, a positive environment, and what some experience, a hostile environment.” By reframing both the article and the evening described in it as a site of harm rather than fun and good times, the critical student exposes this gap. It’s a shame that her critique is dismissed for being based on a ‘wrong’ understanding of journalism and for criticising the celebratory description of the flirtatious student party that is posited as truth under the sign of objectivity. Her complaint points to the important reflection that is needed in the fight against pervasive (sexual) violence. Journalists “act as a check on power”, argues Gunneweg. Unfortunately, this is precisely what is neglected in both the article and the editorial. Widespread sexual misconduct inside and outside the university, connected to broader structures of patriarchal capitalism, calls for feminist complaint, solidarity, and care. And critical reporting.

Pepijn Op de Beek studies history and philosophy and Nena Ackerl has a BA in public administration, works as a research assistant at EUR and studies philosophy.

EM is a platform for journalistic productions by its editors and opinion pieces by EUR students and staff. The opinion pieces do not reflect the opinion of the (main) editors but are meant to provide a platform for and a trigger to debate within the Rotterdam academic community. This also applies to the above opinion piece. It is up to the reader of EM to form their own opinion. Comments are welcome below this article (here are our house rules). An opinion piece (max. 800 words) can be submitted at [email protected] the editors reserve the right not to publish submitted articles.

Read 2 comments