Have you been wondering what “Fact or Fiction” means, or what Gossip Girl, Glee, and BU have to do with women at MIT? Jessica L. Trudeau, Fact or Fiction committee head and program administrator at the MIT Community Development and Substance Abuse Center (CDSA) describes Fact or Fiction as a media campaign — created by the CDSA — to “challenge MIT undergraduate women to think about female identity at the Institute.”
“We wanted people to question the influences of female identity — stereotypes that exist on campus and stereotypes from the media — and we wanted to give women an opportunity to advocate for and engage with other women,” Trudeau said.
As part of the campaign, Fact or Fiction members created posters asking viewers, “Fact or Fiction?” — and suggesting they think about stereotypes like East Campus versus West Campus girls, and MIT versus BU and Wellesley girls. The group also set up a photo booth in the Student Center last week (March 7–10), where women could be photographed holding cards that read “I [heart symbol] a ____ girl,” with the blank representing a descriptor of a woman different from them. Postcards with results selected from an alcohol-related violence survey from April 2010 were also distributed to female students through dorm mailboxes (see sidebar).
Although Trudeau called the response to the campaign “overwhelmingly positive,” citing positive feedback from the people who visited the Fact or Fiction photo booth and e-mails she received, many students expressed confusion about the goals of the campaign and the message of the posters.
One poster contained descriptions of the manipulative tactics of Rachel Berry from Glee, with half labeled “fiction” — even though all the described acts did happen on the show. In response to the “Glee: Fact or Fiction” poster, Casey L. Weber ’11 said, “I’m confused, are they saying that girls backstab each other? That doesn’t seem positive. And also, why is fact on one side and fiction on another?”
Another poster depicted a spectrum, starting from a Barbie doll labelled “BU” wearing a sundress, ending on an equally stylish Barbie labelled “MIT” holding a laptop. Between the two Barbie dolls were three similar, casually dressed women labelled “Wellesley,” “MIT,” and “BU,” in that order. In regards to “The College Girl Spectrum” poster, Daniel M. Manesh ’14 said, “I don’t understand what stereotypes this poster is trying to fight against. I guess I’m just not caught up on my stereotypes.”
“But I guess it could mean that there’s essentially no difference between BU, MIT, and Wellesley girls,” he added after a moment of thought. “That’s probably what it’s trying to say, at least.”
Other students wondered if the messages promoted by the posters were actually necessary.
Jennifer C. de Bruijn ’12 took issue with Fact or Fiction’s “The MIT Girl Spectrum” poster, which depicts a corseted Barbie holding a guitar on the extreme of the East Campus side, while a Barbie wearing a pencil skirt and holding a folder was shown on the West Campus side.
“I live on West Campus, and no one looks like that all the time — people just wear jeans and sweatpants,” said de Bruijn. “I also know what the stereotypes are supposed to be, but I know EC girls, and I don’t have that stereotype. These are all interesting posters, but I don’t think there’s a problem with women at MIT.”
Marie K. Herring ’11, a member of the group that designed the media campaign, said that even if people don’t think they hold a stereotype, this campaign can at least make them question their beliefs.
“During our focus group, a lot of people said that though they didn’t believe they held these stereotypes, upon more reflection, they’ve realized that based on what they’ve said and how they’ve acted in the past suggest that they still do. And if people really don’t have a stereotype, then at least the posters made them think about it.”
But Jennifer T. Melot ’12 agreed that the significance of the problems might have been overstated. “I don’t see the claims made on the website as being a problem. My interaction with females at MIT has been pretty warm and friendly, so I was surprised this was even an issue,” she said.
However, Herring said, “We’re trying to address the underlying cause of the statistics, which is that women aren’t seeing other women as allies. The goal of the campaign is clearly not to say that every woman at MIT is an island or a backstabber, but that we could have a stronger and better community of women at MIT.”
According to Trudeau, “There are so many women at MIT, and of course, this campaign can’t address issues for all of them, but we felt that these issues were strong enough that we wanted to talk about them.”
“I feel like this is a good first step toward looking more closely at women’s issues on campus,” Trudeau added.
The campaign is part of the CDSA’s larger MIT Alcohol-Related Violence Initiative (MARVIN), which deals with social factors that contribute to violence as a result of alcohol consumption. In 2009, the CDSA was awarded a grant by the Department of Education to fund MARVIN, which required them to create a media campaign to “disseminate accurate student perceptions of alcohol-related violence.” To determine the subject and content of the campaign, the CDSA sent out a mass e-mail to all female undergraduates during late spring 2010, inviting them to join a focus group. Over the course of a few months, the focus group — comprised of 17 undergraduate women — met to discuss potential underlying reasons to explain the results of the earlier April 2010 alcohol-related violence survey, according to Herring, a focus group member. “We found the statistics about physical and relational aggression were higher than what we would have liked, and we came to the conclusion that it was because of stereotypes that MIT women had about other women and stereotypes from the media.”
From there, a smaller group, along with two MIT student graphic design interns, met to generate the actual content that appears on the posters.