Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Individualism Rears Its Head Again: Student Views on the "Girls Gone Wild" Effect

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, teaching college students provides a great opportunity to examine their cultural worlds--a kind of class time as mini-ethnography. One of the most salient symbolic themes that comes across in the classes I’ve been in is the deep commitment to individualism--individuals act in the world entirely according to their own intent, unaffected by social context, and should be completely held accountable for their actions. That’s not surprising as individualism is a core value of American culture--just look at the rhetoric spewing out of the Republican primary contest. What’s become more surprising is the myriad ways that that individualism bubbles up.

Take for, a very unexpected, example, the case of young women kissing other women at college parties. I’m calling it the “Girls Gone Wild” Effect as it seems to be a local, DIY version of the video series. I was recently observing a faculty member teaching a sociology class when this topic came up. The instructor was trying to discuss heteronormativity in general by talking about the stigma faced by gay folks if they display any kind of affection in public. I think in an attempt to thwart the instructor’s agenda, the class began popping out with instances of “acceptable” homosexual behavior. One of the first specific examples was the seemingly common phenomenon of college women kissing one another at bars and parties, while being spectated by young men.

Those students that were serious in discussing the topic were critical of the practice. However, the blame was always placed on the women engaged in the activity. The common critique was that those women were “just doing it for the attention.” Those women made poor choices and should be ridiculed. They blamed the individual. No one criticized the existence of a social context completely defined by men. Male consumption of a contrived sexuality defined the event and in a society in which men have power and privilege. While perhaps the women were doing it “for the attention,” it is quite troubling and a persistent power divide allows one gender to appeal for the attention of the other for validation.

My criticisms are nothing new, but I was simply struck by the recurrence of individualism as a complete explanatory framework for the behavior of people in many students’ social worlds.

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