“Mattress Girl” Matters, Whether Meghan Daum Has Had “Enough” Or Not

“Time for young feminists to …”

So starts the headline on Meghan Daum’s latest Los Angeles Times column, a sure sign that the nosy-neighbor finger-wagging was just getting started and that I should spare myself the annoyance. The older generation, sitting high upon their privilege perch, dispensing unsolicited and condescending “advice” to the younger generation on what they’re doing wrong – why, it’s a tale as old as time. That Daum, a writer I admire, took this approach when writing about sexual assault, positing that anti-rape activists should move on from “Mattress Girl” (aka Columbia University’s Emma Sulkowicz) and focus on the victims of Boko Haram, made my eyes bulge in rage rather than roll in irritation. Women are used to being told “you’re not doing it right” – but I’m stunned that a self-described feminist like Daum would be so dismissive of Sulkowicz and anti-rape activism at universities across this country, in demanding that we pay more attention to the horrors inflicted on girls by terrorist groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

“Enough of Mattress Girl; what about the victims of Boko Haram?” Daum asks before we’ve even started the column’s first paragraph. OK. But why the victims of Boko Haram and not the women in Sudan, Syria, and literally every other part of the world that lives under patriarchy? What about them? Where do we stop and start, when have we had “enough”? Has Daum really had “enough” of a movement that has been instrumental in raising awareness for the very real, very troubling occurrence of sexual assault on college campuses across the United States? “Enough” of a woman who has a name, who experienced assault and who turned the trauma of a sexual assault by a fellow student into a performance art piece that has captured a sliver of national attention? “Enough” of a movement that prompted the White House’s “It’s On Us” campaign? “Enough” of all the good Sulkowicz has done with something terrible?

Perhaps President Obama stop focusing on the problems faced by the United States – you know, petty things like unemployment and police brutality — and instead go to other worse-off countries to “help”? The “it’s worse over there!” fallacy is a tactic used by conservatives, misogynists and classists alike to take the focus off of what they believe to be trivial problems in our own backyard and divert it towards more sinister problems in “scary” foreign countries – often to their own benefit, either because they literally profit from such diversions or have a stake in those things they’d like us to ignore. Daum is no dummy, and acknowledges that she’s being “reductive, even insensitive” by suggesting we move on from “the campus assault meme,” and visit a Nigerian refugee camp to “see what real mass trauma looks like.” She goes on:

“…there’s a tendency to draw false equivalencies among feminist issues. And just as we are told not to ‘privilege’ one kind of trauma over another, any suggestion that young American activists might want to also focus on traumas other than their own probably will be dismissed as schoolmarmish finger-wagging.”

It’s also illogical. Surely Daum knows the world is big enough to start different movements which all combat the same beast. (By the way, I’m a fan of Daum’s work and recently read Unspeakable, her book of essays. I was especially transfixed by “Matracide,” about an Upper West Side mother, one of her many forays into the lives of the white American upper class. Now I’m just wondering where the essay on Boko Haram was.)

Daum chastises “young feminists” for looking “inward instead of out at the big world,” as though she and her fellow foremothers/sisters were all-knowing, inclusive and selfless. That both glosses over feminism’s history (which includes racism and colonialism and every other –ism) and distorts much of the work being done in the present. More than any other generation before it, today’s young feminists are concerned with being intersectional and are focused on systematic problems, thanks in part to social media and its ability to increase awareness of and dialogue surrounding issues of oppression here and elsewhere. What Daum has essentially done is attempt to shut down one facet of a much larger discussion about sexual assault and rape by claiming it isn’t big or serious enough. But for thousands of women each year in the United States, including Emma Sulkowicz, campus rape and sexual assault IS a big problem.

Daum’s argument goes beyond finger-wagging – it’s dismissive, silencing, and dangerous. “There is important work to be done,” she writes. “And none of it requires carrying a mattress.” Daum’s patronizing artistic interpretation acknowledges that Sulkowicz’s art and activism are about more than just her own personal trauma, but then proceeds to dismisse her and her work, and campus rape as an “epidemic,” the scare quotes making it even more clear that Daum is just so over hearing about college girls being raped. Yeah, and I’m pretty sure college girls are so over being raped, period.

Sulkowicz been received, yes, positive attention from the progressive media, but the attempts to silence and shame her have seemingly escaped Daum’s notice. That’s unfortunate, because the patriarchal system that violated and then tried to put a muzzle on Sulkowicz is the same one at work in Nigeria, not to mention Afghanistan, China, Ecuador and pretty much every other place on the planet. Someone will always say there are bigger fish to fry. If feminists stopped doing the local work around their communities and instead tried to save those in other countries, how do you suppose we would all fare? Newsflash: you can support “Mattress Girl” and anti-rape activism in the United States and you can care about the women and girls brutalized by Boko Haram – the two are not mutually exclusive. Daum’s myopia is so palpable, I have an actual headache.

“Mattress Girl” has been carrying around that giant mattress because far, far, far too often, rape victims are ignored or silenced. Sulkowicz tried to tell authorities at her school that a fellow student had raped her, and they did not listen – carrying around that mattress was her reaction to that trauma. How often are survivors told to shut up, get over it, or not believed? How often are they told that they deserved it because of the way they dressed or what they drank? Sulkowicz’s mattress DOES help “the girls in Boko Haram,” even Daum can’t see it. Sulkowicz is fighting tooth and nail against two of the most dangerous tools in the patriarchy’s arsenal: our collective silence and complacency. We need young women carrying ridiculous objects around to show how much burden it is to carry around our stories and the crimes that have been committed against us without recourse. If we cannot do that on the grounds of our college campuses – places where art and expression are totems of our democratic freedom – then where can we?

In the spirit of telling people what would be a better use of one’s time, I have an idea for Daum: instead of attacking a young woman who is fighting against sexual assault, how about you fight the system that perpetuates the consistent cycle of abuse and victimhood. How about you fight the patriarchy instead?