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Female Frosh Targets

Article by: Christine Honendorf
Artwork by: Becca Carroll
October 2000

Welcome to Western, scholars of the new century. It is going to be quite an adventure in the wonderland of university life. The theme of the fall reception for students at The University of Western Ontario by the university's daily student-run newspaper, The Gazette is something the contributors spend a lot of time considering. It has to be bright, colourful, attention grabbing and it has to be powerful enough to resonate throughout the entire edition. This year, the front-page bore a full-colour psychedelic Wonderland scene, contrasting a doe-eyed Alice with a menacing, lecherous Cheshire cat and a junkie Mad Hatter and was loaded with blatant references to drugs, sex, and alcohol abuse.

Such content could be considered to be hazardous to students. The scene depicts the typical female first-year student as a suggestively dressed white woman. Her juxtaposition with the other characters
implies that, in the Wonderland that is UWO, she will be surrounded by males who are in a consistently high state of sexual arousal, many of whom are a physically threatening. The message offered by this issue is that at Western, female frosh are targets, sexual objects for male gratification. It is a message that Mark Walma, the Equity Services Advisor for the University, finds objectionable: "I could not imaginea less appropriate way to welcome new students to the campus," he said.

Entitled "Frosh in Wonderland", this initial issue perhaps set an inappropriate precedent for conduct for new students of 2000-2001. As it was targeted mainly to first-year UWO students, and enriched with highly sexualized, objectifying material, The Gazette's Frosh Edition played on the preconceived idea that Western is a party school where getting laid is easy. Third-year Kinesiology student, Yale Winestock mocks: "What? If that's true then I've definitely been going to the wrong parties!" Keeping in mind that Winestock's clever quip implies that this description of Western is a farce, the Wonderland parody is
not far in exaggeration of its reputation. Comics and columns in university press that deliberately exploit sexuality and that subtly reinforce misogyny or homophobia, create the expectation that at Western students should act to conform to this image to maintain social standards.

Nina Chiarelli, deputy editor for The Gazette, admits that the content of the Frosh Edition by far elicited the most complaints this year. "But in my opinion, this year we have printed worse; things that I don't necessarily agree with. However, it is important for students to be aware of what is going on. Also, it is important that students take a stand on controversial issues. We encourage letters and we do print them," she said, "we take complaints very seriously." However Chiarelli also said that they do not necessarily influence decisions about what is actually printed: "We do give our sections the freedom to decide what is appropriate content [for a university student body]." Although there are some things that the editors feel go too far and we won't print, The Gazette contains material that students are exposed to in the university community regardless of its prevalence in print, she said.

An institution conscious of the needs and expectations of its community, Western continually attempts to diversify the beliefs of its students and to promote equality and safety within and around the university. Inter-residence programming including awareness weeks, coffee houses, and Beyond Awareness Hit-and-Run presentations are saturated with positive thinking and mainly affect first-year students. University wide programs initiated by Equity Services, Health Services and the Student Development Centre, are also intent on spreading positive space for students. Their programs serve to connect with the student body both within and without the residence system. Efforts to reduce gender stereotyping, violence against women and sexism are negated where university press emphasizes stereotypes and prejudices within its photographs and cut lines. UWO seems to have been plagued with this stereotype of "party school" for decades. The university's administration, in efforts to downplay this image, and the many initiatives that serve to instead highlight the university's academic quality and social diversity are helping. But the school's image is not the sole entity that is harmed by derogatory imagery and content, nor the most important. Western's stereotyped image still seems to inflict a poisonous expectation of conduct on many first year students. There is definite pressure to get drunk, to often go out to the bar, to be interested in sex, among other behaviours. "It all has to do with being social," explains first-year health sciences student, Martina Walton. "But sometimes people can get a little caught up in it."

The further influence of media sources like Western's The Gazette contributes to conduct expectations for students via their portrayal of normal student life, especially since it is so close to home. The Gazette prints 16,000 newspapers Tuesday to Friday every week and is the country's only daily student newspaper. It is impossible to determine exactly what percentage of the student body reads TheGazette, yet it is fair to say that it is possible for a large portion of it to do so. Though it seems that to argue about this year's Frosh Edition is pointless at this late stage, perhaps it would be less of a big deal were highly sexualized content not the paper's norm. The fact that the editors of the student newspaper often choose to print sexualized imagery such as Elizabeth Hurley in a bikini (24 October), or sexualized headlines and/or cut-lines as unrelated or unnecessary additions to the story. This method is doubtless popular to heterosexual male readers, yet its impact acts to marginalise the rest of the campus population and objectify women.

Chiarelli explains what influences the editors' decisions about photographs and cut-lines: "We send out photographers everyday to try and capture non-static images of campus life. Basically, the ones we choose are the ones that turn out best. It also helps if they relate to a story we're covering." Chiarelli said that the cut-lines are created after the photographs are in place. She mentioned that a team separate from the photographers comes in and entitles them mostly from first thoughts. When asked if they choose clever cut-lines that will most attract attention, she clarifies: "We try to keep it within reason. We try not to choose [cut-lines] that are derogatory, we prefer if they tie in to the photo."

But it does happen, as seen most prevalently Frosh Edition. Perhaps in it is likely that more often the cut-lines that tie in a sexual innuendo will attract more attention than the benign. Therefore, it is fair to say The Gazette's sometime habit of teaming innocuous photographs with sexually exploitative cut-lines, even for fun and parody or for the benefit of eliciting student opinion on ontroversial topics, does not help to reduce the toxicity of the student environment, but may actually contribute to it. The Gazette is not totally slanderous, nor is every issue loaded with poisonous content, however the sometimes highly sexualized quality incurs a threefold detriment: 1) it negatively contributes to Western's image, 2) it sexually objectifies women, 3) it lowers the integrity of the first-rate work The Gazette produces on a regular basis.

As the level of what is acceptable on television, radio, and in print has become increasingly explicit, it is important for people to be aware of (and to be able to recognize) the latent and blatant stereotypes within various media. It is ignorant to think that because we are in an intellectual university community, everyone has the brainpower and social skills to know when the joke is about to go too far.

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