UCLA Memes and Rape Culture

Last Wednesday night, while doing reading for one of my classes (by which I mean, procrastinating on my reading for one of my classes), I stumbled across the UCLA memes Facebook page. As the night went along, I amused myself by scrolling through the many images poking fun at the North/South Campus rivalry, outrageous grading curves, long B-Caf lines and work ethic of the man who directs traffic at the Covel crosswalk.

And then I came across the meme above.

This image is a version of the “sheltered college freshman” meme, which typically combines this image of a youthful girl with a caption making fun of her naivety. The memes are humorous as they lightly make fun of the tendency for those new to college to say incredibly naïve things, and they also have just enough realism to make them hit home. For example, other versions of the meme feature the text “So your parents don’t pay for everything? Wow!” and “‘You girls wanna go to a party?’ Aww that’s so thoughtful of you to invite us.” Sure, they’re silly, but you can also easily imagine someone actually saying that.

While the other two examples are largely harmless, I was stunned by the implication of the meme on the Facebook page. What should have been an innocent, I’ve-totally-heard-someone-say-that-before joke became a huge, public display of disregard for a recent sexual assault on campus.

Because this meme is a clear reference to what is known not as the Saxon Steps but as the “rape trail.” For those who currently live or have ever lived on campus, you probably haven’t ever called the pathway by its real name. In fact, the “rape trail” is such a universal UCLA-ism that I don’t think I have ever heard someone call the staircase the “Saxon Trail” except as an explanation of what the rape trail is. It literally wasn’t until I was walking down the trail a few weeks into fall quarters that I read its identifying sign and learned the trail’s official name.

So while we’ve all probably used “rape trail” to refer to what is technically the Saxon Trail, I don’t think we consider the weight of what we are saying. I know I certainly haven’t. And it’s when we forget the implication of what we are saying that we veer into dangerous territory—in this case, going so far as to make light of sexual assault.

Additionally, this meme is a clear example of victim blaming. Although what I hope was intended to be a simple joke about naïve freshmen girls (which is a whole other issue of stereotyping unto itself), the meme ends up referencing an incident of sexual assault on campus, as well as the assumption of others occurring in the same location, implying that the woman brought the incident upon herself. Through her naivety, the girl in the meme is setting herself up for an assault—and we’re expected to find it humorous.

But not everyone found it humorous, as seen in the comments of the picture. The first comment reads, “This is really, really insensitive and not funny at all.” At last count, forty-two people had liked this comment. Another UCLA student wrote “How is it possible that 11 people liked this? Whether it happened at 2am or 2m, nobody deserves to be made fun of for something like that.” A third student succinctly expressed his disapproval with one appropriate word: “Dislike.”

I will give the creator of this meme a little credit: the image does point to the necessity of always being aware of your surroundings and making rational judgments so you don’t end up in potentially dangerous situations. No, it probably isn’t a good idea to use Saxon Trail by yourself late at night, but we also can’t simply assume that a woman was assaulted out of her own naivety regarding the trail’s reputation. We can, however, continue to raise awareness about rape and sexual assault, and we can dislike—sometimes by actually writing the word down—tactless jokes like this meme that just go too far.

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