What is a “Bennie”?
(Besides what could be a pet name for a popular breakfast item?)
CSB-SJU is unique among liberal arts colleges. The moment you (a prospective student) slip into the spell of the bifurcated-yet-somewhat-unified institution(s), you are simultaneously locked into an identity complex: “Bennie” or “Johnnie.” And you may spend your 4 consecutive years shifting uncomfortably in this ambiguous but very real set of gendered expectations, like fidgeting with an article of clothing that doesn’t quite fit your frame. Or maybe it does. There are times when you feel it and times when you don’t. It’s even difficult to draft a laundry list of what these “Bennie” or “Johnnie” characteristics are. I would be remiss not to mention David Foster Wallace’s little parable about a dialogue between fish:
“How’s the water today?”
Let’s not kid ourselves. Gendered roles are still very real and very imposed on our campuses – and performed most auspiciously during the weekends. President Mary Ann Baenninger has been most wonderfully dogged and tireless in her pursuit to transform them – more specifically, to overhaul Bennies’ ideas about themselves (which are inextricably linked to “Johnnie”) and to encourage female students to be confident, bold leaders in the classroom and other social arenas. Going forward, she seeks to effectively create a “girls’ club” where women have a sense of camaraderie, not competition. To build pride for the female institution, not a longing for semblance or straight-up defection to the romanticized male institution. And yet there seems to be some “push-back”, or resistance. Beyond the boy’s club of Johnnie alums, it seems that students themselves are keen to maintain at least a fragment of the Bennie-Johnnie complex, and this counter-effort used to baffle me. And damn, it still baffles Baenninger. She was discouraged and bellicose when only men were asking questions at a panel discussion entitled “How Women-Centric Policy Benefits Us All.” And remember the “Bennie Swag” video, and the subtle mention of “Bennie problems” that pervades the Gorecki cafeteria (which feels sometimes like a quixotic gendered theater involving the can and can’ts of ice cream and ug boots)? This push-back is on the part of females, as much as it is from men. Women shirk from identifying themselves as feminists (or they only distinguish themselves as such on paper), even if the pressure of “Bennie-isms” miff and displease us. And even when we may feel mistreated by some of our Johnnie peers, respected only when we have that sinister combination of “confident and attractive”, Bennies are nevertheless hesitant to run with the feminist programme.
Why don’t more Bennies identify themselves as feminists? Can you be a Bennie and a feminist? I had this conversation with Dr. Steven Thomas after class a few weeks ago, and his answer was, “Being a feminist (or not being a feminist) is tied up with still wanting to be datable.” Ah-ha! Dating. That which eluded me during my previous discussion with Baenninger is actually very obvious. Many Bennies who would outwardly claim to be feminists don’t do so because they don’t want to scare away potential Johnnie mates or alienate male friends. Moreover, there truly are Johnnies who still scoff at feminism, so the fear isn’t entirely misplaced. A lot of it may be derived from broader public confusion as to how “radical” feminists are, without realizing that there are plural feminisms. SO, can we explain both the perpetuation of gendered roles and reluctant feminism in Lacan’s idea of the Other – in fantasy and dating? It’s worth a shot.
Sidenote: What about Johnnies?
Before we jump into Lacan, I can’t let myself do a disservice to Johnnies. Baenninger’s neglect of the parallel “Johnnie image” and the expectations and ideals imposed upon many of the men (oftentimes by women), even if to a lesser degree, will do no good to bring the institutions together. (See: masculine athleticism). Her project is to recreate Bennie, but it is impossible to derealize the very binary or axis on which both the female and male identities lie. That would be akin to Mutually Assured Gender Destruction, or a lack of success at all (as in, no one will buy into it). Without putting both sides of the binary into the discussion, we won’t get very far. Talking about “Bennie” means talking about “Johnnie”. At their roots, the two identities were mutually constituted in a gendered way. Even though a lot of it is outdated (I certainly don’t view many of my relations with male students in terms of gender disparities), there are certainly historical forces within our institutions that keep perpetuating these ideas. And in ways that have positive/negative effects on both men and women.
Currently, we have a situation where many Johnnies have become disengaged – lower GPAs, lower graduation rates, lack of participation. Men are dropping out and getting left behind just as women are claiming more ground. I admire MaryAnn’s project, but some of it is (tongue-in-cheek), so Second Wave. Feminism should (while in the midst of deconstructing “gender” and “sex”) be about bringing men and women into better contact, without sole focus on one or the other. Doing so could engender hostility and do nothing to dismantle stereotypes imposed on women. 21st century feminism is also about addressing the irregularities that accompany the changes to female roles in public and private spheres over the last decade. That is, women have become empowered in some ways, and still remain disadvantaged in others. The same goes with men. Reconstructing “Bennie” means reconstructing “Johnnie”, and the task is only tenable when both groups are involved.
Bennie and Johnnie: the fantasy
A small child is embedded in a complex network of relations, he serves as a kind of catalyst and battle-field for the desires of those around him; his father, mother, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, who fight their battles around him, the mother sending a message to the father through her care for the son. While being well aware of this role, the child cannot fathom what, precisely, an object he is for the others, what the exact nature of the games they are playing with him is. Fantasy provides an answer to this enigma: at its most fundamental, fantasy tells me what I am for my others. -Slavoj Zizek in “How to Read Lacan”
One of Lacan’s greatest insights for our discussion is the fact that when we see other people, we don’t see them in a literal, objective sense, but as ideas. Our attraction to another person is mediated by certain desires – not chosen, but given to us by the Symbolic Order (by culture, by how we were raised, etc). What we received via television, movies, books, magazines, our family, and our peers is an (often oversexed) ideal of what and whom we should desire, a contingent of unlikely characteristics. We each form our own versions of the fantasmic – that which attracts us (one example: “the bad boy” depicted in 90s tweeny films). And when we came to CSB-SJU, we were given certain myths or ideas about what a Johnnie or Bennie is supposed to be – what we were, ostensibly, to look for in the “other”. And more importantly, what we in turn are supposed to embody. Obviously, we are not all facsimiles or even variations of a single model, but “Bennie” and “Johnnie” are (more or less, depending on who you are) variables that get mixed into our identities as students at these institutions. They are stand-in categories for the more vague, society-wide conceptions of the feminine and masculine.
The “Bennie Swag” video was a humorous critique (by 2 freshmen girls) about female behavior and attire – unfortunately owing to many Johnnies’ jabs about the Bennie community being more or less attractive. And the organized retort of “Bennie is beautiful” has also raged against misogyny. Much of it is sexual – subdued, but still sexual. There are other ways the Johnnie-Bennie binary is policed – how students try to shape what the other sex desires, what the other sex “is” according to fantasies. See the Record’s “Hashtag” boys’ article last fall that critiqued the “hipster” and their later articles encouraging certain activities that one (mostly men) should do to be cool, linked to places and practices unique to CSB-SJU. The hype about hipster reminds me of what Zizek calls the “anxiety-provoking encounter of the other’s desire”. God forbid Bennies would begin desiring more effeminate, emotionally-intelligent, less-athletic men in tight pants.
In short, even while we try to fight these desires within ourselves, there are still powerful fantasies about masculinity and femininity that we impose upon each other, Bennies and Johnnies alike. Roles and fantasies are reproduced and played out like a strange supply-and-demand game. Every male or female must possess that “factor” for us, which regulates our desire for them. And it is in this way that our expectations of others (girls wanting a bro or jock, for instance) are often linked to the images/expectations of us. Gendered and sexual stereotypes are reproduced. So I think that any Bennie’s reluctance to label herself a feminist must be related to the incongruence she perceives when linking “feminist” with “Bennie”, an ideal propagated by “Johnnies”. “If I am outwardly a feminist, will I then seem less feminine and perhaps hostile to a prospective Johnnie-boyfriend?” This may seem ridiculous, but its something worth thinking about.
We seem to be special women here, we have liked to think of ourselves as special, and we have known that men would tolerate, even romanticize us as special, as long as our words and actions didn’t threaten their privilege of tolerating or rejecting us and our work according to their ideas of what a special woman ought to be. An important insight of the radical women’s movement has been how divisive and how ultimately destructive is this myth of the special woman, who is also the token woman. – Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken”
Maybe if we started to demand more Feminist males, this wouldn’t be the case. Or better, if the active molding of these two constructs (Bennie/Johnnie) invited the participation of students from both schools. And as Baenninger noted, men like confident women. So what’s with the angst associated with feminism? Finally, Lacan would probably say that there is nothing we can really do about our underlying desires, which may often and unfortunately be tied up with long-engrained chimeras of masculinity.