Unless you were attending Deep Springs College and were too busy herding cattle by day and reading Nietzsche by night this spring to notice, your campus probably had its own “College Memes” page on Facebook. My own alma mater, the University of Miami (woosh, woosh) has several FB meme pages, each with approximately 2000 likes (this for a school with about 10,000 undergrads).
The Huffington Post, itself the newspaper equivalent of an internet meme in some ways, covered the phenomenon this February, after multiple college-centric meme figures had established themselves nationwide–Sheltered College Freshman, Lazy College Senior, Scumbag Steve, etc.
These College Memes pages are essentially all the same: you have your standard “One does not simply walk into [place where students routinely walk into]”; your various jokes about the quality of dorms, dining hall food, or campus social life; some scattered laments on the order of “Oh, my school is so full of hipsters!”; and the occasional “HAI, I don’t take my assignments seriously: LOL!”¹
My own home institution has its own College Memes page, of course. For the most part it is like any other–banal jokes, some moments of genuine humor, some jabs at other local schools, and some self-reflexive commentary on the quality of other people’s Wonka memes. Browsing through the page as a young faculty member was informative insofar as I could get some sense of how my students thought about the university and parts surrounding. Which is why I was so puzzled and fascinated by this entry:
At one level, this cartoon does not make any sense at all, as campus is technically located in Cheltenham Township. Cheltenham is the the immediate northwest suburb of Philadelphia, and its first, established in 1682. Ezra Pound grew up there. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to public school in Cheltenham while living in the US, as did Mr. October, Reggie Jackson (you can imagine the fun at their high school reunions). The median family income there is $75000. There’s a Target with a Starbucks inside it. It’s not exactly the kind of place you try to avoid after dark.
However, the locals would tell you that campus is not in Cheltenham at all. All the university’s promotional materials and everyday conversations with the neighbors would put campus distinctly in Glenside, a “census designated place” just under a mile north of the Philadelphia border. Being designated a “census designated place” means that though Glenside is regularly talked about as a distinct entity, it has no civic or municipal authorities or structures—the state recognizes the common usage of the name, and the Township uses the name for the purposes of neighborhood associations and real estate marketing.
So if it’s not the actual Cheltenham that Simba is supposed to stay away from, what is it? It’s hard to say, but my sense is that the “shadowy place” referred to in the cartoon is probably the Wyncote and La Mott areas of Cheltenham Township, as well as the Cedarbrook, Stenton, and West Oak Lane neighborhoods of Philadelphia to the south and east.
These areas are less affluent than the rest of Cheltenham Township (median income in Wyncote is closer to 50,000…which is still above the national average), but they are also considerably more “urban” in character. There are more row homes than ranch houses. There are ethnic grocery stores and pawn shops, mechanics and nail salons, and churches in strip malls. And, not insignificantly, these neighborhoods have radically different racial makeups than campus’ immediate environs—Cedarbrook is 95% black, where Glenside is 89% white.
This is not to say that any concern one might have about safety in neighborhoods around Glenside is unwarranted, or predominantly about racist paranoia. According to the Philadelphia 14th Police District‘s website, there are more incidents of violent crime in Cedarbrook, Stenton, or West Oak Lane than there are in Glenside (though, I should add, not nearly so many as some might imagine). There were three homicides in the surrounding area in the last 6 months as opposed to zero for Glenside. There were three sexual assaults in the 14th District as opposed to one in Glenside. There is a major disparity in assaults, in theft, and in robbery. So it is certain that the neighborhoods are different. And, as I would imagine the creator of the meme image would remind us, it’s clear that its primary goal is humor, and one hesitates to make too much of what is, first and foremost, a joke.
But to some degree, it is a joke that also tells the truth. The university where I work is one that makes its name on students traveling abroad, yet many students do not venture into the city of Philadelphia beyond a trip to the Art Museum or a walk down South Street. During the school year, I overhear students talking about the “inner-city” or “ghetto” neighborhoods that surround our campus, despite the fact that they are a) not in the “inner” city at all and b) by any statistical measure middle class neighborhoods. And, I would wager, many students do feel nervous about exploring the historic and diverse neighborhoods that are less than 15 minutes from their dormitory doors, not because of their experiences there, but because what they have heard or assumed those neighborhoods are like.
I want to reiterate my recognition that there are incidents of crime in these neighborhood (and to acknowledge that my male privilege does inflect the following clause, and indeed this entire post)…but the 14th Police District is nowhere near the most troubled in Philadelphia, and those incidents of crime do not entirely define those neighborhoods. Students that would follow the meme’s advice to “never go there” would surely feel comfort and safety on campus, but they would also miss out on the opportunity to try incredible Korean fried chicken and visit a crucial site on the Underground Railroad, they would miss out on a chance to visit an impressive neighborhood Jazz festival and used bookstores tucked into old train stations. And what replaces those opportunities is a smaller, more fearful view of the world.
As almost everyone I’ve ever spoken to knows, I have an enormous academic crush on Richard Dyer. His essay “The Role of Stereotypes” is a staple of my teaching. In it, Dyer’s argument is that stereotypes are not intrinsically good, bad, positive or negative, but rather are simply a tool of human storytelling that are a “necessary, indeed inescapable, part of the way societies make sense of themselves” (207).
Dyer connects the concept of the “stereotype” in society to the function of the “type” in narrative. Types are stock figures without significant depth or complexity that are used in storytelling to quickly communicate values, establish conflict, or provide contrast or color to a narrative. The type, Dyer points out, is to be distinguished from the novelistic “character,” a figure privileged in narratives of individualist societies—afforded the change to develop, to hold contradictory or complex motivations, and occupy central positions in our core cultural myths. The point Dyer’s going for here is that stereotypes function as a way of characterizing others that minimizes their complexity and marginalizes them in “the story of our lives.” These functions aren’t accidents, or just the product of ignorance, Dyer argues. They actually work to reinforce structures of social organization.
“This is the most important function of the stereotype: to maintain sharp boundary definitions, to define clearly where the pale ends and thus who is clearly within and who clearly beyond it. Stereotypes do not only, in concert with social types, map out the boundaries of acceptable and legitimate behaviour, they also insist on boundaries exactly at those points, where in reality there are none.” (211)
I can’t read those words without thinking about that original cartoon again. The cartoon names a place—”Cheltenham”—while it simultaneously draws a sharp boundary for the people that encounter it. “You must never go there,” it says, for the people there (brown, lower-middle to working class, etc) are dangerous, distasteful, not to be welcomed into the story of our lives. Stereotypes aren’t neutral or natural—in many cases, they work to reinforce social and cultural categories that are entirely illusory and arbitrary yet remain enormously powerful material forces in our contemporary world. And they circulate through cultural texts, even the banal and corny ones like college memes.
We cannot expect to escape stereotypes. But the proper response is not to frown and say “Bad! Bad stereotype!” or to condemn the creator of the cartoon as a hateful bigot. He or she is probably a perfectly fine person that was just trying to make a dumb joke, but that seems to me not at all the point. Focusing on that individual ‘s intent or character is neither interesting nor important. What seems more important to me is recognizing how messages like the Simba cartoon draw on cultural meanings that are empowered by systemic and collective practices, not simply the character or intentions of some 19 year old.² Instead of narrowly focusing on the individual that published this cartoon (and simultaneously letting ourselves off the hook), we could instead critically interrogate the “sense” that stereotypes make of the world for us, recognizing that “sense” as manufactured, as historically and politically motivated. We should ask, after all, whose purposes that “sense” of the world serves, and what kind of vision of the world (and the people in it) it offers to us…and whether that’s something we just want to laugh off.
Dyer, Richard. “The Role of Stereotypes.” Media Studies: A Reader, 3rd edition. Sue Thornham, Caroline Bassett, and Paul Marris, eds. New York University Press, 2010.————— ¹There is a broader argument to be made here about what seems to me to be a steady transformation in the nature of internet creativity. Anecdotally, I can tell you that in the late 1990s, there were tons of my high school classmates that learned to code, design, and manage their own websites, and now Facebook does all that work for them. LiveJournal, for all its dramatic warts, seemed to me much more focused on providing a space for self-generated creativity than a service like Tumblr, which seems to me much more oriented toward sharing other people’s photos. I have a lot of feelings on this, though I’m not sure how much of my response is wistful “Remember the ’90s?” remembrances and how much is my distaste for the Internet version of Mad Libs. ² See Jay Smooth’s distinction between the “what you said” and “what you are” conversation.