As co-founder and president of the Michigan Political Union, I find it hard to criticize any student organization whose mission statement closely resembles our own. Take Consider magazine, for example. According to its official website, Consider magazine is a “non-partisan, non-profit publication operated by students at the University of Michigan.” Its purpose is to “provide an open forum for discussion of significant issues of campus, community and national interest.” Like MPU, Consider has a duty to pay close attention to the way it portrays certain issues and the people affected by them. But in the case of open housing (formerly known as gender-neutral housing), I think that the “point counterpoint publication” — as it defines itself — failed to appropriately weigh the consequences of publishing its Oct. 6 edition.
In March, the Gender Neutral Housing Coalition conducted a survey that found 67 percent of the student body supports introducing what was then called a gender-neutral housing option at the University. But the issue I have with Consider has nothing to do with my stance on an open housing policy; it has everything to do with what I think was a lapse in judgment and foresight.
In case you haven’t seen it yet, Consider’s Oct. 6 edition has a cartoon on its front cover that depicts a line of four bathroom stalls with closed doors. Seen from beneath the door of the first stall is a pair of boots, in the third is a pair of high-heels and in the fourth two pairs of sneakers. Hopefully, you noticed that I skipped the second stall. That’s because coming out from underneath the second stall is what looks like a fish or mermaid tail.
Failing to find a caption anywhere on the page, or inside the magazine for that matter, I came to the conclusion that the image was meant to suggest that there is something strange, different or perhaps other-worldly about people whose gender identity does not match their presumably biological sex. Why else would you draw a fish tail in a cartoon about open housing?
In an effort to gain a better understanding of the cartoon, I contacted Rose Jaffe, the cartoonist responsible for the cover. Jaffe is also a cartoonist for The Michigan Daily. Jaffe said that such a depiction was not her intention at all. She claims that her cartoon was supposed to convey that “the bathroom is typically a place that we think of as being separated,” explaining that open housing would be “more inclusive and welcoming of all types of people.”
“It’s not meant to imply that there is something freakish about transgendered students,” Jaffe added.
She went on to say that she is an “open person and accepts everyone.”
From the 30-minute conversation I had with Jaffe, I have no reason to think she’s lying. After all, she was more than willing to answer all my questions directly and candidly. But Jaffe’s carton was certainly not interpreted that way by many students on campus, myself included. Take for example Anya Nona. Even though she wrote the counterpoint for the open housing edition, Nona conceded during our conversation that “after looking at it, I think the illustration is a little offensive. I can see why you’re writing an opinion piece on it.”
In striving to be provocative and thought-provoking, I think Consider unintentionally crossed over the line into offensive. Now of course some people may disagree with me. Others may think that this is a case of political correctness gone awry. But the fact of the matter remains that if such an offense could have been avoided, it should have been.
Zachary Berlin, Consider’s editor in chief, said that the cover was meant to “challenge pre-conceived notions about sexuality. We (Consider) have been around for two decades. We want to get people talking.” But in an effort to “get people talking” and “play a polarizing hand,” Berlin and his staff inadvertently created a cartoon that might have caused a queer person to feel uncomfortable and insecure about his or her gender identity and expression. Human sexuality can be an extremely sensitive issue for some people. As such, it should have been treated with a bit more tact than some of Consider’s previous topics, which range from pornography to Internet privacy.
Moreover, the campus publication should have done a better job of fact-checking Nona’s counterpoint. All of the arguments in her piece stemmed from a factually inaccurate assumption. Nona insinuated that an open housing policy, if adopted by the University, would force students who didn’t express interest in the program into an uncomfortable situation. But this simply isn’t true. University Housing has explicitly stated that such a policy would be opt-in only. In response to this issue, Berlin stressed that Nona does not represent the views of Consider magazine and is not a member of its staff.
Ultimately, I think Consider is a fine publication. I genuinely believe that it plays an important role in stirring much needed discussion on our campus. But as the Spiderman cliché goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
Noel Gordon can be reached at email@example.com.