Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The School of Rape

So it turns out that not only is the University of Virginia in the running for the premiere rape college in the United States, it also has a mural that, if not glorifies faculty misbehavior and adultery, at least considers it just another part of attending the University of Virginia.

The rape issue was brought to national attention thanks to an article in Rolling Stone which:

...detailed what appeared to be the preplanned gang rape of a student in 2012 in an upstairs room of the Phi Kappa Psi house, followed by a botched response by the administration. And it alleged that rape has long been an ugly undercurrent of the university’s social system, treated as an unfortunate byproduct of the school’s party culture whose eradication was less important than maintaining the university’s image.
A very expensive mural called "The Student's Progress" covers the entire foyer and stairwell of Old Cabell Hall, which is also the University’s premier auditorium and the favored space for visiting dignitaries. The mural depicts, among other scenes of daily life at the University of Virginia, a male faculty member standing on a porch and tossing a mostly naked student her bra as his beleaguered wife comes up the stairs. My students and I have pointed out that wildly inappropriate section of the mural to faculty, administrators, students, parents, and donors, but so far, no one has been particularly horrified. The mural is proudly displayed and is prominently featured on UVA tours.
I managed to track down the blog of the artist of the mural, Lincoln Perry (not to be confused with the guy who played Stepin Fetchit) which includes four videos of 10 - 15 minutes each about his work on the UVA mural. 

I didn't see the section that Gordon mentions in any of the videos. The content of the mural seems to be a big mish-mash of allegory (the "Seven Deadly Sins" are included, and he goes on about the Pride figure at one point in the video) and allusions to many famous works of art including not only "A Rake's Progress" but also "The School of Athens" which he mentions explicitly in the video.

So it's possible that the student and her bra symbolize the deadly sin of "Lust" or the scenario is possibly a reference to one of the many depictions of Zeus raping a mortal woman, inciting the jealousy of Hera

In any case, though, the artist, his patrons, and the UVA administration at large see nothing wrong with presenting a scene which, if not rape, is a portrayal of the abuse of power, and presented as part of a "student's progress."

Of course there's a tradition of right-wingers dismissing the problem of faculty abuse of power through sexual relationships with students, from OLEANNA which depicts the issue as a crazy student controlled by a shadowy Group falsely accusing a professor of rape, to anti-feminist Katie Roiphe's (I was just talking about her yesterday) defense of a philosophy professor Colin McGinn using his position to pursue a student. 

The abuse of power seems to be a concept that conservatives in general have a tough time wrapping their heads around, probably because their worldview is based on hierarchies and the belief that those at the top of the power structure deserve to be there through their own merits. A philosophy professor responds to Roiphe's difficulties with the concept:
I know that I was once an aspiring undergraduate philosopher who said “thank you” when an adviser, a leader in the field I wanted to study, called a philosopher on the graduate admissions committee at another university and told him he’d give a verbal recommendation but would “wring his neck” if I were admitted to the other program, because “she’s mine.” I was once a graduate student who said “thank you” when that same adviser presented me with the first red rose. I was once a graduate student who said “thank you” when he promised not to tell anyone what had transpired between us. He assaulted me because he “loved” me. But the thank you didn’t mean I loved him. The thank you didn’t mean I was appreciative. The thank you meant that I was afraid of the consequences of provoking his ire, afraid that I’d be committing academic suicide if I complained or refused to play his game. The thank you meant that there was a power differential.
The University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson, the raper of slaves, as Bonnie Gordon notes:
Rape culture reflects a community grounded in patriarchal privilege and gender inequity. For example, that mural. Or the fact that our sacred founder, Thomas Jefferson, had sex with a 14-year-old enslaved girl. (That’s not consensual.)
We are expected to worship the sacred Thomas Jefferson for his great accomplishments, while brushing aside the fact that he was a slave-owner and rapist. Just as fans of Roman Polanski can watch his work and not think about the fact that he is a child rapist. The work of the great man is presumed to be too important to worry about such minor details. And if you have a problem ignoring such details you're treated like some kind of hysterical moron.

How fitting that Jefferson's University is now considered a rape school, considering it was founded by a rapist. And the section of the mural called out by Gordon is a fitting representation of the forgiving, even cavalier attitude of the culture at large towards the abuse of power by men.