Black bosoms and old hags: 'Unbefitting a university'

History teacher Barbara Henkes says universities should take a critical stance towards images and the messages they contain. So why did the cafeterias suddenly feature pictures of women of advanced age, accompanied by the text ‘Old hag’?
By Barbara Henkes / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

The University of Groningen in general and the Faculty of Arts in particular teach students about the power and meaning of visual culture. This visual culture is part of the curriculum: students learn how to reflect critically on the images that we see every day as part of that.

But the images that people at the Harmony complex – as well as other RUG buildings and cafeterias – have been subjected to seem to belie this critical reflection. Not that the university itself has placed these images there; oh no, the university washes its hands of this. The RUG will probably say that they only function as a facilitator and that the university is not responsible for this visual slap in the face, which interweaves gender, skin colour, and age in an uncomfortable and even humiliating way.

Cleavage

Thanks to the RUG’s push to invite commercial ventures onto its premises, we have been subjected to the types of companies that feel it’s okay to ‘brighten up’ the bicycle parking garage at the arts faculty with pictures of a black woman in a bright blue top with a plunging neckline, apparently meant to entice us to engage in athletic activities.

To be sure, I, too, enjoy the sight of women, no matter their skin colour, sporting a lovely cleavage. But in a time when especially academics vehemently discuss the impact of post-colonial relations on our daily life, such an image is sure to make people uncomfortable. It shows this excessively eroticised image of a black woman and associates her with sports rather than intellectualism, even when she’s positioned in the dark bicycle facilities of the arts faculty. But I kept my feelings of annoyance to myself, because in addition to my many classes and other work, I was focused on WOinActie.

Old hag

But the ‘Ouwe Taart’ images I was recently confronted with certainly approached my limit of acceptability. The cafeterias at both the Harmony and Academy buildings featured plates of small apple pies. Next to the plates was a picture of a broadly smiling, bespectacled, coiffured white woman of advanced age, holding an apple pie. ‘Ouwe Taart’, the accompanying text said, which also announced that this ‘delicious personal apple pie’ was available for less than two euros ‘during the Week to combat loneliness’.

I understand that this is supposed to be frivolous advertising and that the use of the phrase ‘Ouwe Taart’ isn’t meant to be insulting. But let’s take a closer look, shall we? Loneliness is something that is all too often associated with women of advanced age in need of help, and the proceeds of the sale of the pies will go to the Met je hart foundation, which aims to combat loneliness among the elderly. Not just that, but the use of the term ‘Ouwe Taart’ certainly isn’t very flattering. In Dutch, this phrase literally means ‘old pie’, but translates as ‘old hag’: an annoying, elderly woman.

Grievous

I wasn’t the only one who was unpleasantly struck by this combination of image and text in the university cafeterias. The women behind the register (both young and old) were uncomfortable as well. The staff at the Academy building removed the advertisement on their own initiative, several hours after it had gone up; meanwhile, their colleagues at the Harmony hesitated because the boss said the advertisement was ‘meant to be humorous’.

I don’t like to act as some kind of visual police, and I don’t want to ban any images. But if I’m supposed to teach students critical thinking and observational skills, then the university managers should at least do or say or add something when they themselves have provided the opportunity for this type of visual culture. This type of normalisation is grievous and in my eyes, unbefitting a university.

Barbara Henkes teaches Modern History at the RUG.

Nederlands

04 October 2018 | 5-10-2018, 12:14