As students settle from the flurry of school-sponsored and not-so-school-sponsored Welcome Week activities, we gaze back lovingly on the rites of passage that characterize that coveted week: meeting people in our dorm, sweating in bikini tops and unbuttoned floral shirts and, of course, the infamous midnight walks down frat row, or Hill Street, toward Washtenaw Avenue.
The Migration, the Stampede, the Herd — whatever you want to call the groups of freshmen walking to parties. It’s a pop-culture given for any campus. Engineering senior Seerat Kaur remembers her first fall semester, walking as far as two miles with her friends in the standard Welcome Week uniform: a black top and jeans.
“(The freshmen) all talked about that stereotype, of freshmen who can’t find parties and are desperate enough to walk around wherever,” Kaur said.
But, thanks to social media, the collective actions of college freshmen, particularly young women, have exploded from being a well-known college stereotype into a whole new genre of content. Whether just walking down the street or relaxing on their own property, freshman girls are targets of social media ridicule. Videos on TikTok also appear to be taken without the girls’ knowledge or consent, with the videographer filming from another level and zooming in from afar.
Making fun of fashion trends is one thing; the black-top-jeans-white-shoes look is basic, but calling it out is hardly an unpopular stance. By virtue of this look being trendy, everyone on campus is aware of its cultural pull, even the ones partaking in it.
However, the implications of these videos are less about clothes and more about the undertones of misogyny throughout. It’s as though the mere presence of women is enough to gawk at –– a joke everyone is in on except the girls themselves. Even though freshman boys also walk to parties and also have their own Welcome Week uniforms, the hordes of freshman boys don’t garner the same level of media attention that the girls do.
This leads me to the million dollar question: What is the joke? What is so funny about girls looking the same, about girls going to parties, about simply walking … together? And what is the goal? If the past decades of media viewership have taught me anything, I’d assert that the goal is to bring women down a peg — and make them feel mindless, insecure and unsafe.
This misogynistic brand of humor, in which the punchline of a joke revolves around the mere existence of women, is not new or surprising. It’s only taken on a new face. In an article for SAGE, U-M communications professor Susan J. Douglas presents the fallacy of “ironic” depictions of women in media. Offering an example in MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” Douglas analyzes how the irony lies in the show’s presentation; the girls may be shown as glamorous and lucky, but as the audience, we’re meant to laugh at their tacky materialism and vapidity.
“This kind of irony allows for the representation of something sexist — most girls, and especially rich girls, are self-centered bimbos — while being able to claim that that’s not really what you meant at all, it’s just for fun,” Douglas writes.
For college students today, platforms such as TikTok have replaced MTV but fulfill a similar role. Admittedly, the comparison is not perfect. First of all, complaining about TikTok is low-hanging fruit, and to blame the platform for the mockery of freshman girls as a whole would be a ridiculously broad statement. And second, the numerous videos on young women do not necessarily carry the same ironic tone that MTV boasts and are much more blatant in their criticism.
Nonetheless, like the girls on “My Super Sweet 16,” young college women are treated with the same animosity via TikTok’s bite-sized videos and across other media platforms. Michigan Chicks, an affiliate of Chicks, a branch of Barstool Sports that’s “all for the girls,” had a video go semi-viral of a group of young women walking down East Liberty. They were mostly wearing black tops and jeans, and the caption read “college girl fashion is unmatched.”
Regarding Michigan Chicks’ anti-freshman-girl content, Kaur noted that “bigger accounts post individuals’ content. They normalize making fun of girls online and justify that it’s okay.”
Part of the lure of this content is the potential for it to be reposted by a company account and have it go viral. Under this logic, making fun of freshmen, or women in general, is not such a fringe trend but essentially a company-sponsored one. If major media presences like Barstool Sports or Michigan Chicks make this type of content and it goes viral, individuals’ content can get even more internet clout should a brand pick it up. And so the cycle continues.
In this way, making fun of young women is not only popular, but profitable. This means that it’s even harder for young women to stand up for themselves, going up against not just individuals but even businesses capitalizing on their image.
MTV’s birthday girls or college freshmen, the message is the same: Young women are bimbos driven by their lust for clothes, parties and alcohol. Especially when irony is employed, as Douglas described, it’s easy to veil one’s misogyny behind the front of it simply being “a joke.”
Though not every joke and video is specifically targeted at freshman women (and even if a caption says they’re freshmen, how can we know for sure?), I call specific attention to freshman girls for two reasons: First, given that freshmen don’t yet know the campus very well and most likely don’t have any friends with off-campus housing yet, one could infer that groups of people walking to frat parties would be freshmen.
Second, and more importantly, in terms of age and gender, freshman girls are the most vulnerable group on campus to sexual assault. According to University of Michigan Sociology professor Elizabeth Armstrong, freshmen are vulnerable because of a number of factors: the pressure to “fit in,” which may cause them to overdrink; not having close friends to look out for them at social events; limited knowledge of safety measures and overcompensation for this newfound freedom of going to parties.
Welcome Week and the few weeks that follow are positioned as the peak dangerous time for freshman girls; over 50% of assaults on college campuses take place between August and November, a time frame also known as the Red Zone. According to the Center for Women and Families, during the Red Zone, “(f)reshman females are targeted further as they are new to the area, have less parental supervision, and may participate in new activities such as alcohol and drug use as they try to meet new people.”
Thus, the reality during Welcome Week does not involve a hive mind of a bunch of mindless, black-shirt-uniformed girls, salivating for White Claws, chanting in their minds, PARTY! PARTY! PARTY! The statistics tell the whole story: Traveling in groups maximizes these girls’ safety by having another person to look after them, to watch each other’s backs.
Whether explicitly or implicitly, humor about freshman girls doubles down on this vulnerability. You could make fun of the hordes of freshman boys walking around in the exact same places at the exact same times of the weekend, but I don’t believe it carries the same weight. The risks of sexual assault, of harassment, of hyper-vulnerability are all stacked against the girls.
And many of these videos have been posted by accounts run by female-identifying individuals. Kaur has noticed the humor among other upperclassmen women, too.
“(Upperclassmen girls making passes) normalizes the joke towards younger women and just perpetuates the cycle even though (the upperclassmen girls) have gone through (Welcome Week as freshmen) themselves,” Kaur said. “Freshman girls won’t stand up to the status quo.”
This cycle is a dangerous one for women, because even though we know the frustration of constantly having eyes on us, it’s still easy to slip into internalized misogyny, to let out a disgusted chuckle while observing parades of girls clad in bikini tops march down Hill Street. I’m guilty of accepting this humor without a critical eye and making my own passes at freshmen, spurred by my own biases, insecurity, and even envy.
To all this I say: I’m really sorry, freshman girls. Firsts at college can be really fun, and you should be allowed to have those experiences in the ways that make you feel most comfortable and happy, even if you might cringe in a few years. But I think that we need to take a step back and recognize that the vulnerability of freshman girls is what drives this humor in a way that is distinct and harmful.
When posting and consuming content online, we shouldn’t let light-hearted college humor derail into misogynistic caricatures of freshman girls, who just want to have fun safely. This starts with having a critical eye when scrolling and being honest with ourselves about our own biases, internalized or not.
Statement Columnist Elizabeth Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.