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What do we do now? A look at helplessness on campus

Actress Reese Witherspoon, a former Stanford student, speaks out against the trend of portraying female movie characters as helpless. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If we’re being honest, an inevitable element of the “Stanford experience” is helplessness. We have all been there at 3 a.m., crouched in a corner so that the light from your laptop doesn’t wake up your roommate, your color-coded disaster of a schedule staring you down, the clock seemingly skipping hours each time you look at it, feeling like there is absolutely nothing you can do to make things better. It’s a Stanford rite of passage.

Actress Reese Witherspoon, a former Stanford student, speaks out against the trend of portraying female movie characters as helpless. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

With this in mind, I recently came across a speech from actress Reese Witherspoon, in which she criticized the tendency of male writers to create helpless female characters that look towards the man to figure everything out: “It’s my most hated question. I dread reading scripts that have no women involved in their creation – because inevitably, the girl turns to the guy and says, ‘What do we do now?’”

Most moviegoers wouldn’t even think about this because it is such a norm in classical Hollywood cinema. In fact, we go so far as to expect female characters to exhibit a constant state of helplessness and distress, even making it into a trope known widely as the “damsel in distress.”

This had me thinking about expectations of helplessness we have here at Stanford; an example would be freshmen. Upperclassmen often lightheartedly joke that the freshmen, who do not quite know how to bike yet, are under-prepared for just how many midterms they will have and are confused about the number of Arrillaga buildings on campus. We joke about it because we have all gone through it and have our own stories, like when I realized all-too-late in my first quarter that section attendance was mandatory for my 1920s literature class. Yet, with freshmen, we know that they’ll get used to the swing of things with time.

On the other hand, Stanford tends to have unrealistic expectations of first-generation, low-income students. As a student who identifies as first-gen, low-income, I have often found myself in an unfamiliar situation, which everyone around me seemed to know how to handle.

Some of my peers would tell me stories about the intense academic environment at their boarding school, where they were prepared for intellectually vigorous institutions like Stanford. They would look at my resume and ask why I hadn’t done any internships yet, as they had done three or four, and I would tell them about how my working-class family didn’t know about internships or where to look for them.

I often felt, when speaking to professors and teaching assistants, that I was expected to magically overcome the limitations my background forced upon me, as if I shouldn’t be this helpless. Their advice would have underlying tones of judgment and incredulity which made their words feel less like support and more like scolding.

Yet, I have simultaneously expected to fulfill the role of “damsel in distress.”

My on-campus job is a very technical one (I film the lectures for your engineering classes), and it is one that I am pretty good at, thanks to working there for six quarters. Despite my experience, I often have to deal with male coworkers who attempt to show me how to do my job, despite being less experienced than I am. Even when I’m training them, I’ll get comments telling me to do this or that, as if they cannot comprehend that I, as a female, am capable enough to do my job and show them how to do their job. This male expectation that women seem to never know what they’re doing has extended beyond the workplace; from my extracurriculars to my classes, my capability is continually being undermined.

Essentially my life at Stanford has been characterized by being forced to operate under both unrealistic expectations and expectations of failure. I am expected to ask “now what?”, but when I do, I am judged. This does not create an environment that fosters growth, rather it becomes one where surviving overcomes thriving as the main goal. I have become content with maintaining a middle-of-the-pack status in the face of these expectations – I tell myself that it may not be succeeding, but it isn’t failing either.

My drive and my intellectual curiosity have deteriorated under these problematic expectations, and they shouldn’t have. At a place like Stanford, we should create an environment where all students feel like they can thrive – a place that is safe to ask questions, to take the lead, to achieve.

Contact Arianna Lombard at ariannal ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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