She’s not a “Pretty Little Liar,” but Emma Sulkowicz is not an Innocent: When Performance Distracts from the Real Issues

Art’s greatest power is that it gives a voice to the voiceless. There is no singular language through which we can express ourselves, and sometimes, we lose our words — art can give us back those words. It can give us a language to share our hurt, our triumph, our distress, our distrust, our glory. It can give us the power to connect on a raw, human level; to be seen for who we are and what we stand for when people previously refuse to look and listen. Images are powerful things.

The image of Emma Sulkowicz standing on stage at the Columbia Commencement with her mattress is a powerful image.

And like everything about “Carry That Weight,” it’s a problematic one.

I had seen Ms. Sulkowicz on Columbia’s campus about 2 or 3 months ago at a public event. I was there as a supportive Columbia alumni, and looked around to see if her “weight” was with her. She was hard to miss with her blue hair (how very school spirit!) standing with a group of friends, laughing. I couldn’t see her mattress — I even looked in the stands, outside the doors and it wasn’t anywhere that was visible. I remember those awful twin XL monstrosities in their clinical navy blue plasticized cases. They’re hard to miss in public places. Perhaps if I had seen it, and perhaps it was there somewhere, I would have been more supportive of her decision to carry it at graduation.

I felt a tinge of hypocrisy and a need for personal attention. And I feel bad that I feel that way.

Ms. Sulkowicz chose to walk at her graduation from a University she feels mistreated her. That’s where I’m confused. To me, the more powerful act of protest would have been to NOT be there. To not walk and stand outside the campus with her mattress would have spoken volumes. That’s a snub to the administration — HER refusal to shake its hand and partake in its ceremonies. Instead, she’s walking away with an Ivy League degree and a photo opt. That seems like an all around win for Ms. Sulkowicz… but not necessarily a win for the cause.

The media all gravitated to President Bollinger’s “snub” — there was no handshake for Ms. Sulkowicz as she crossed the stage. There are those horrid “Pretty Little Liar” posters plastered around Morningside Heights. It’s all just sickening. Did Prez Bo snub her? Or was he advised not to shake her hand by lawyers because of the implication that he supported the “trial by media” her performance waged against her accused assailant?

I don’t know… and the problem is, I’m starting not to care.

Well, I mean, I’m starting not to care about Emma Sulkowicz.

Ms. Sulkowicz is becoming a distraction. Where once she was the rallying voice against a broken system, she has come to undermine the cause. It’s become an Emma vs. Paul, Emma vs. Columbia, Paul vs. Columbia tale. Somewhere along the way, we lost the real issue — that the rate of sexual and gender-based assaults on college campuses are painfully high and that administrations are handling them badly.

Can we please refocus on finding a solution for that, and stop talking about a mattress and student work of art?

When I was a freshman at Columbia, two men in my immediate circles were accused of sexually assaulting women. Both were told to leave for a semester. Neither graduated from Columbia. I don’t know how the proceedings went, but what I do know, is that both cases created major factions within the community. Most of the men’s friends, male and female, took their sides, while the victim was completely ostracized. Black-balled socially. How ridiculous, but also, I’m not unsympathetic.

But here’s the problem with “Carry That Weight,” now that Nessinger has had a chance to be interviewed and is filing a not unjustified lawsuit..

Ms. Sulkowicz has unintentionally erased any chance at true justice in her case.

Why? Ms. Sulkowitz felt violated, and the university and public justice systems failed her. What is justice now for her? Her performance targeted an individual while it raised awareness about a larger issue. In doing so, it vilified her alleged assailant, in what became an international venue. What is justice for him? A settlement, which is likely to happen, won’t absolve him of anything.

A pretty tragic cycle.

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