How to Engage the Lisa Simpsons of Today’s Academia

Perhaps it’s their confidence in themselves that drives them to behave like ‘girls gone wild.’

Ever since Sesame Street taught toddlers their ABCs, TV and the media have significantly influenced the attitudes of youth. The media do not show academic success in a positive light.

One rare exception is the character Lisa on “The Simpsons,” the popular prime-time cartoon series. Two women who felt like nerds growing up can relate to Lisa, and wondered what it meant that their key role model as young people was a cartoon character. “I was waiting in grade school, high school, college and graduate school for people who wanted to learn,” said Jessica Turos, assistant director of the career center at Bowling Green State University IN.

She found a kindred spirit in Georgianna Martin, who works in residence life at Creighton University NE. Both liked school and reading, but found few who shared their enthusiasm. It was a lonely experience, one they see repeated among women students on their campuses.

At the NASPA/ACPA conference held in Orlando in April, Martin and Turos—along with Stephanie Acheson , graduate associate director in residence life at Creighton—discussed women students’ thinking and behavior, and how to engage them in learning.

Split personalities

Engaging women to learn should be a hot topic on most campuses, given that in 2002-2003, women earned 57.5% of bachelor’s degrees and 58.8% of master’s degrees.

Many women students also do community service and volunteer work; they attend cultural performances; some care for live-in dependents.

The 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement reported that significantly more female than male students pre-pare two or more drafts of an assignment or paper before turning it in and work harder than they had thought they could to meet an instructor’s expectations.

But along with their efforts, these “Millennials” come with some challenges. They’ve been told all along that they’re special. They want attention and lots of it. They are tech-savvy, globally conscious and team-oriented. But they also feel pressured, are conventional thinkers and—thanks to their Boomer parents—have been sheltered from the real world.

This dichotomy of striving for success while self-denigrating their efforts affects how they see themselves and their female peers. According to Ariel Levy, author of the book Female Chauvinist Pigs, young women are enthusiastically working to reverse the outcomes of the feminist movement. By playing to societal standards for beauty and sex, women who are female chauvinist pigs “make sex objects of other women and of themselves.”

Perhaps it’s their confidence in themselves that drives them to behave like “girls gone wild.” After all, they are the majority of students on most campuses, they feel as if they “own” the language and they think there’s nothing wrong with taking off their clothes at the drop of a hat.

At Halloween, one of today’s most popular costumes for women is a Playboy Bunny. Males don a smoking jacket or silk pajamas to become Hugh Hefner. What is unusual about this behavior is that these are not “strippers or paid performers,” wrote Levy, “they are middle class college kids on vacation—they are mainstream.”

Why do these otherwise lovely young women do this? Some say they want to be one of the guys. There’s the coolness factor or the opportunity to be closer to the guys by behaving like a tramp. Some chalk it up to “just a joke” or “just for fun,” a normal part of the raunchy culture.

These women want to experience life like men do, especially in the bedroom. Having multiple sex partners and un-safe sex with no consequences are behaviors that, in the past, no self-respecting young woman would ever do, much less admit.

Most frightening of all, these young women call their behavior liberation. “They believe that this is what the women’s movement is all about,” the trio noted.

While women can claim to enjoy sex just like men do, Levy says that’s not the case. The freedom to do something is not equality. There is still very unequal power between the sexes. While there has been lots of talk about privilege and oppression, most female students seem not to “get it” until they take a Women’s Studies course. There they learn the concepts of sexism and feminism, and open their minds to the realities of life.

Many of today’s college students believe that the women’s movement is complete, having accomplished everything it set out to do. But the societal constructs of gender privilege and gender oppression haven’t gone away.

Women still lag behind in math and science, although they’ve made gains in other fields. Gender differences in wages remain, even in higher-level jobs. Few women hold top positions in academe, Fortune 500 companies or government. And many women, even in higher education, are afraid of being labeled with the “F” word or being called a “vaginist” for fear losing the respect of male colleagues.

How did it happen?

Blame some of this on the media. In reality TV shows such as “The Bachelor” and “Flavor of Love,” women compete for the trust of one man. Paris Hilton and Britney Spears demonstrate that celebrity status isn’t predicated on intelligence or good choices.

When Katie Couric, the highest paid female anchor in TV news, subbed for Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, she wanted his desk cut out to show off her legs. After the network refused, she sat on top of the desk instead.

On most TV shows, women with intelligence are portrayed as schleps. The actress who plays the lead in the sitcom “Ugly Betty” is seen as competent and intelligent; but because she has no clue about fashion, it’s evident that she won’t go far. Lisa Simpson is one of the best female role models on TV. Portrayed as intelligent and competent, Lisa Simpson seems to have taken it upon herself to shape women’s equality. But she’s only a cartoon character.

Valuing appearance over academics

Martin, Turos and Acheson conducted a 10-question survey of their peers in academic staff departments at various schools. Responses came from Greek life, academic affairs, senior level administration and student support services, plus a large number from residence life.

Of the 39 surveyed, 60% were women with widely varying experience: 23% had worked no more than two years in their field, while 10% had worked 15 or more years.

When asked what impact they thought the media had on young women, respondents overwhelmingly said the effect was negative. In TV shows or movies, young women see other females objectified, witness unrealistic relationship expectations and harmful behaviors, watch a devaluing of internal qualities and see women being submissive to men. The rise in violence against girls in middle school can be attributed to violence on TV and in the movies, the trio said.

The only positive responses were about female political role models and more women in visible media roles. But most women in the media are portrayed as looking cute and sassy, not wise.

On the day that Britney Spears shaved her head, the body count in Iraq took a back seat to her tresses. The media focuses on appearance rather than on intelligence. Most female characters hide their brains and highlight their sex appeal. Promiscuity and putting oneself in harm’s way are standard TV scripts. The classy stars of yesteryear like Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth and Katherine Hepburn have been replaced with vacuous airheads like Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie and Lindsay Lohan.

This emphasis on sex appeal has affected women’s behavior on campus, the trio said. They are less willing to take leadership roles or even call themselves leaders even if they’re doing the same job as a man. Career choices and majors steer clear of math and science. And the MRS degree appears to be the degree of choice.

Appearance is also taking precedence over academics on campus. Intelligence is devalued. Because of this, women students are disengaged from learning activities and don’t raise their hands in class. Collaboration has taken a back seat to competition and many women willingly allow men to better them in grades.

One survey question asked about programs on sexism. Most young women think sexism has been eliminated, which strongly illustrates a need for a dialog.

Some schools are attempting to address the issue. Rutgers University in New Jersey has close cooperation with community women leaders. Women at Newcomb College, part of Tulane University LA, are organizing a capital campaign to prevent sexual assault. Greek life there has created an eating disorders program to help sorority women over-come anorexia or bulimia. The key is to communicate these offerings within your campus.

Because not all campuses have a Women’s Center, informational resources for women is available in many different areas including residence life, Greek life and off-campus community organizations—even men’s coalitions. Multicultural offices and health services also have resources for women.

Challenges and suggestions

At most schools support for women’s issues competes with other programs for scarce resources. Other challenges include few female role models on campus, and especially a lack of women leaders. Then there’s the perception that gender is no longer an issue.

Interest in appearance means women students are less involved in and attend fewer programs on sexism. With the behavior exhibited, there’s a need to empower women to move beyond stereotypes. But there’s the danger in relating women’s issues only to body image even though society links the two. And there are the generational differences between those on the front lines of the feminist movement and those who see it as ancient history.

How do we use this information proactively to educate college students? One group built on the “Girls Gone Wild” theme to promote alternative spring break programs. A program billed as “Wild, Succulent Women” can be taken out of context although it did get attention. It’s important to connect to people where they’re at, even if it’s different from where you’d like them to be.

At Creighton University, the Women’s Center is not free standing, but a part of residence life. It used a Patrick Dempsey/Hillary Swank movie to draw the students in and then got them to see their own complicity.

How do our methods of educating on these issues differ for female and male audiences? One way is to have single-sex groups with facilitators of the same sex. Men may have a hard time recognizing their gender privilege. Encourage role models.

What hasn’t worked with college students? Attacking their own reality, what they watch or what they wear all fail miserably. Approach it from a learning perspective asking, “Tell me a little more about that.” Let students come up with their own programs and ideas. Marches—successful in the 1960s and 1970s—are passé.

Events or initiatives that have shown success include an equity bake sale. The men were charged $1 for the treats, while women paid only 77 cents. All of the money went to a battered women’s shelter. Campus performances of “The Vagina Monologues” have also raised awareness.

We may have come a long way, baby, but it appears we have an even longer way to go in educating our daughters and granddaughters. We need more Lisa Simpsons, both real and animated, to come to the rescue.

Contact Martin at:

Turos at or 419.372.2356

Acheson at or 402.280.3347

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