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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Representation matters

This semester I have two classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The first is Ancient and Medieval Philosophy and the second is Musical Theatre History. I go straight from one to the other. Obviously, these are very different classes in many different ways, but after only one week of classes, there is one difference that stands out to me the most. It hit both my friend and me from the first moment we walked into the classroom Aug. 27. In my first class — philosophy, which has about 40 people — I am one of only six or seven women. Meanwhile, in my musical theatre class of maybe 25 or 30 people, there are only two men. These are the facts, and, by themselves, they don’t necessarily mean anything. But these facts do have implications, most immediately on how I feel. 

I feel how the stares linger for half a second longer when I walk one minute late into philosophy than into musical theatre. I feel how much more comfortable I am to participate verbally in musical theatre than I am in philosophy despite the fact that I can much more easily explain Socrates’ arguments in “Euthyphro” than I can identify the differences between a book musical and a concept musical. In one class, I feel outnumbered, and in the other, I feel empowered.

Now before you tell me that facts don’t care about my feelings, consider for a moment that that actually isn’t what matters here, but rather my feelings care about the facts. In fact, they can affect the facts. Why is my philosophy class comprised of mostly men and my musical theatre class of mostly women? I certainly don’t believe it is because men tend to enjoy contemplating big questions about the nature of humanity and the universe while women prefer to analyze the style of “Cats.While I am not qualified to give an undisputed answer to this question, I might venture to guess that it is an issue of representation. Before I switched my second major to philosophy last semester, one of my professors urged me not to, in part because of how male-dominated the philosophy department is. I did not let this deter me from switching my major to something I was more interested in, but, understandably, it did give me pause. This could mean that fewer women decide to major in philosophy because they feel less welcome in that community, not necessarily because of any blatant misogyny or sexism, but simply because representation matters. 

There are other facts that matter beyond simply the number of women and men studying philosophy and musical theatre, but in the content of the studies themselves. While I take my philosophy major and musical theatre minor equally seriously, let us not forget that one of these disciplines is a requirement for all students at the University of Notre Dame. Meanwhile the other, as I know all too well, is often considered frivolous, easy and aimed at those who don’t care about bettering the world. The association of the former study with male dominance and the latter with female dominance can clearly have problematic implications for how women view their own studies and their role in academia. So too, the content of each class comes from a different range of perspectives. Ancient philosophy, of course, comes from an almost totally male perspective because it originated during a time when only men were given the resources to study and write about this subject matter. On the other hand, within the American broadway musical style alone, every type of perspective is imagined and explored. This comes with the nature of each of these studies, and it is not a “bad” thing or something to be helped, but it is worth thinking about. Representation matters.

Representation matters because it affects who we encounter and who we interact with. Although Notre Dame airs on the heterogeneous side, it certainly is not a place devoid of diversity, and we should want to associate with and learn from people who are different from us. This isn’t always easy because we want to be around people who are like us. When we stay in our comfort zones, we not only box ourselves out of conversations that would be bettered by our input, but we deprive ourselves of important opportunities. Nevertheless, involving ourselves in something that doesn’t seem like it is “for” us isn’t easy. This isn’t a grand call to action to transform the study of ancient philosophy nor a critique of either my philosophy or my musical theatre classes. It’s simply a reminder that not everyone has the opportunity to do what they love and do it with a bunch of other people like them — which can have real consequences. I tend to forget this because it doesn’t often immediately affect me, but now I get a personal reminder every Tuesday and Thursday. 

Lucrezia Phifer is a sophomore and can be reached at lphifer@nd.edu

Show Some Skin is a student-run initiative committed to giving voice to unspoken narratives about identity and difference. Using the art of storytelling as a catalyst for positive social change across campus, we seek to make Notre Dame a more open and welcoming place for all. If you are interested in breaking the silence and getting involved with Show Some Skin, email lphifer@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.