Sydney University college culture is in the news.
The March edition of Meanjin carries a reflective essay on one student’s experiences. This is a brief extract.
Wesley College rose to prominence in fringe media in May 2016. All colleges seem to take their turn in the spotlight. Slut-shaming, the circulation of documents that mock students based on their ‘private’ sexual encounters and appearance, unreported sexual assault, and demanding, demeaning and destructive orientation week activities that extend well into the academic year were brought to light in response to some female ex-residents leaking the contents of a college yearbook. Everyday attitudes towards women are intensified in a proximate, alcohol-saturated, high-pressure and youthful environment. Young women’s sexuality—a point of intense focus in this highly ritualistic and traditional setting—is ‘marked along a continuum … ranging from virtuous (virgins) to licentious (sluts)’. Despite increases in value placed on the demonstration of agency in young women, the onus is still placed on the female to account for her behaviour, even when ‘violated by a partner or hamstrung by inadequate and unjust social and material conditions’.
In hindsight, the path to and from my room characterises my time there. I started out extroverted and bright. Following the hallway to my room, I became more introverted and constrained as the light dimmed. It was as if those walls were pressing down on me, the brown paint and the mahogany door frames shortening my breath.
Throughout nineteenth century literature written by women, inner unrest is reflected in the dimensions of inhabited space. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar taught a Women in Literature course in the early 1970s and found that ‘Images of enclosure and escape … metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors’ were recurring patterns in the texts explored. Riddled with ‘fantasies with maddened doubles functioned as asocial surrogates for docile selves’, the literature firmly establishes its own tradition. A classic example is the Madwoman in the Attic of Jane Eyre. Bertha dramatically represents a lineage of women who, in a historical, male-dominated space (which can also be likened to literature itself) the woman is captive, wreaking havoc in her dark corner, until her temperament imposed by the walls ignites destruction and/or escape. Enclosure, as inflicted by a male overbalance, catalyses change.
Gilbert and Gubar observed that ‘not only did a nineteenth-century woman writer have to inhabit ancestral mansions (or cottages) owned and built by men, she was also constricted and restricted by Palaces of Art and Houses of Fiction male writers authored’. They look at how the female writer has worked, oscillating between a desire to escape and the persistence required to write. This relates to the act of writing and to the challenges of contributing to a body of literature with a male gatekeeper.
The young men in second and third year patrolled those dark brown halls in little footy shorts and striped jerseys. Maybe they thought they were like the lion at the top of the Wesley crest.
Read the full essay Intramural in the March Meanjin. In shops March 19, or subscribe.