TW: This article discusses sexual assault
Boston University’s chapter of It’s On Us — an organization of students combatting sexual assault on campus — recently launched a Change.org campaign to shut down the Barstool BU affiliate Instagram account.
The Barstool BU account is known for posting memes and videos related to fraternities and the college party scene. It is affiliated with the digital media company Barstool Sports, which among a men’s lifestyle sports blog, podcasts and radio programs, has an affiliate program through which college Instagram meme pages can utilize the popular Barstool username in exchange for posting occasional ads. College athletes are also featured on the page wearing Barstool merchandise in exchange for a free T-shirt.
The Change.org campaign is mainly hinged on the racist and misogynistic actions of Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy. In 2010, Portnoy received backlash for making the following statement: “I never condone rape, but if you are a size 6 and you’re wearing skinny jeans you kind of deserve to be raped.” Portnoy was commenting on a 2010 rape case in Australia in which the alleged rapist was acquitted because the victim’s skinny jeans were, according to the alleged rapist’s lawyer, “difficult … to be taken off by someone else unless the wearer’s assisting, collaborating, consenting.”
Portnoy claimed this comment was meant to be a joke. Aside from the fact there is no comedy to be found in the statement, Portnoy’s “joke” mocks the victim, not the perpetrator. The whole point of comedy is to disrupt existing power structures — to punch up. Who was Portnoy trying to mock in that statement?
This is just one in Portnoy’s profoundly boring, pathetic library of racist and misogynistic comments he somehow successfully passed off as comedy to his audience. In 2016, he made multiple statements comparing Colin Kaepernick to an Isis agent and Osama bin Laden, later explaining, “[Kaepernick] just thinks Black are people are being treated unfairly, so he’s making a moral stand. Fine, I didn’t know he was Black … I don’t hate him — I hated him a lot more when I thought he was a terrorist.”
His behavior extends beyond his comments, having threatened to fire any Barstool employee who chooses to unionize, and has a history of sexually harassing female employees.
The It’s On Us petition states that Barstool BU is supporting Portnoy’s racist and misogynistic actions through its affiliation to the Barstool brand.
But some people could argue that Barstool Sports is not its founder. Portnoy’s disgusting actions do not necessarily need to discount an entire media company, or an Instagram account merely using “Barstool” in its username for clout.
First, as Portnoy is all over the Barstool brand, it is difficult to divorce his behavior from the corporation. Even the Barstool Sports error page is a horrific picture of him in bed.
Second, Portnoy’s entire digital media corporation is entirely shaped by the same sexist and racist language culture from which he informs his humor. Barstool Sports Incorporated bloggers and podcast hosts other than Portnoy have consistently over the past 10 years sexualized minors and created a toxic work culture that consistently targeted its female employees.
But even with all of the above reasons for Barstool Sports’ toxicity, one could still say that Barstool BU does not necessarily perpetuate the same kind of toxicity in its posts. After all, aside from the occasional risky Tinder screenshot and its generally male-centric humor, it doesn’t cross the line all that much.
All of that may be true. But it is nonetheless strange to think about how something as specific as a college meme page can be affiliated with a corporation.
Barstools Sports is a relic — a cesspool of misogyny, racism and painfully boring jokes. Its name labeling our campus meme pages reminds users of the exclusionary and white male-dominated origins of American higher education.
Why can’t memes and funny moments from random Boston parties simply exist? Why do they need to be affiliated with this man?
In the advertisement-dominated world we live in, memes were meant to be this democratic, independent form of humor. Corporations usually get roasted when they try to bastardize a meme for their corporate gain. Why are we all falling for it in this case?
Moreover, even if Barstool BU does not regurgitate the same degree of toxicity as its father branch, it still shaped itself around its affiliate sponsor. It still centers its content around the male gaze and reinforces existing power structures that enable women and marginalized groups to continue to be targeted and dehumanized.
Consider the response to the BU It’s On Us campaign. People ridiculed it, calling the student group “crybabies.” The rigid backlash against the It’s On Us campaign reveals just how presently these affiliate Instagram pages perpetuate the misogyny of their sponsor. How sensitive do you have to be to claim removing a meme page affiliated with a corporation is “killing comedy”?
The bottom line is that the Barstool BU page — whether it means to or not — is complicit in the racist and misogynistic culture enforced by Barstool Sports and its founder David Portnoy by carrying the corporation’s name. Whether anyone has the power to shut down the page is a different matter, and deals with issues of free speech.
But for now, consider the issue this way: Why are your meme pages corporatized? And who are they making fun of?