Some months ago – as part of its rebranding campaign – Lakehead University decided to update the look of its cyber-presence.
The new beta version of the website was unveiled in last fall and, after some weeks, taken down due to technical issues.
The website was re-launched on January 20, and since then it has been up and running with a fair degree of stability. In its re-launch memo, the university pointed out that what we are getting, for the time being, is an interim version of the website, and that its complete version will be launched in about a year.
So what we have so far is, for the most part, a redesigned website, with some sections waiting to be updated.
There is no question that the new website is an improvement over the old one. It certainly looks more up to date and, design-wise, brings the university into the 21st century.
However, there is something peculiar about the most prominent section of its entry page – the picture slideshow. When you first enter the website, its central area is taken up by a sizable visual, over which a dotted LU “track-map” and, in the upper left corner, a new LU slogan, “LAKEHEAD CONNECTS YOU to YOUR future,” are superimposed. The image changes every time you enter or refresh the site, thus creating a visual slideshow-style narrative about the “LU experience” and the future that LU students are to be connected to.
But what is being communicated to our current and future students? What is the narrative?
On the matters of gender, the 18th Century Enlightenment philosophy was to a non-insignificant extent rooted in the “natural differences” argument, according to which men and women were different by nature and, therefore, naturally endowed – or, perhaps more accurately, predisposed – to occupy different spheres of society. These differences were rooted in dissimilar biologies and manifested as distinct intellectual, social and moral capabilities and, therefore, destinies.
According to this line of reasoning, men were by nature the creatures of intellect, destined for the public realm and the future of rational decision-making; women, by contrast, were the creatures of sentiment and emotion, morally superior to men but destined for the private realm and the future of “irrational” non-intellectual pursuits.
The ultimate social implication of the natural differences argument was the notion that “boys become men by accomplishing something; girls become women by getting old” (expressed most recently on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart by one of the participants interviewed for the piece on “the problem of” women in the US military).
Fast forward to 2013, and the first thing one notices on LU’s new webpage is that males and females are set completely apart, inhabiting two different, and distinct, worlds (there are no females in “male images,” and no males in “female images”). The female world is overwhelmingly non-academic and tied to the “natural realm” of non-intellectual pursuits (exploring nature, enjoying skiing, and “horse-whispering”). The male world is exclusively academic and tied to the “intellectual realm” (teaching and doing research). One picture that places female students in an academic setting focuses on the “fun and social” – i.e., studying – aspect of university rather than on the more serious one of academic instruction or research.
The second thing that stands out is different facial expressions of males and females. All female students have a jovial look on their faces and seem to derive a great deal of pleasure from their “natural activities.” The males, by contrast, have much more serene looks on their faces and are depicted as fully immersed in their “intellectual pursuits.” Instead of pleasure, the men project focus, attention, and dedication. The male faces communicate that “male pursuits” demand a great deal of intellectual effort; the female faces project ease and casualness about “female pursuits.”
Finally, the third thing one notices is that the only point of “contact and interaction” between the males and females is an act of (artistic) creation, where an active male hand is drawing up a passive female figure. To be slightly technical about it, the image depicts the subject/object relationship of command and control, in the context of which the female is “birthed” as an image of the male power of imagination and perception.
One could go further and add more, but the main point here, I think, is fairly clear. The front-page visual narrative of our university website is not that far – if at all – removed from the 18th Century natural differences proposition mentioned above. With the university motto, “LAKEHEAD CONNECTS YOU to YOUR future” superimposed over the images, this narrative is given an even more direct, unsettling, gender(ed) note – what we are connecting you to is your biologically predetermined future.
To be fair, the full main-page website visual consist of 25 images that offer a different narrative, more in step with what the university is presumably trying to communicate. But, for some reason, not all of them are visible, and (at least on my computers) the slideshow only cycles through the last eight. An interim rebranding campaign glitch? One certainly hopes so.
Dr. Mišina is Assistant Professor in Sociology at Lakehead University. His book, Shake, Rattle and Roll: Yugoslav Rock Music and the Poetics of Social Critique (http://shake-rattle-roll.com), is published by Ashgate (Surrey, UK).