The Observer: Reclaiming Our Name

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  April 19, 2018

For a number of years, many have quietly grumbled about the implied sexism in the titles of our university’s two student newspapers. The complaint goes something like: why do the men at our school comment, while the women simply observe? While the name of the traditionally male newspaper, “The Commentator”, connotes activity, the name of the traditionally female newspaper, “The Observer”, connotes passivity. Taken together the names could imply that while men at YU jump into the ring to comment on the news and take charge of the stories on campus, the women of our university sit on the sidelines quietly observing, too timid and reserved to get involved.

This issue of our paper’s name bubbled to the surface in 2015, sparking a small controversy. The then editors of The Observer took to an editorial to describe how numerous students had approached them over the year to express their dismay with the sexism implied by the two newspaper names, some even going so far as to say that the passive implication of this paper’s title deterred them from writing for it at all. While the editors defended the merits of “The Observer” as a name for this paper, they also recognized the significant minority of students, many of whom were aspiring student journalists, who felt that the it was time to get rid of it in favor of something more reflective of women’s ability to take charge. In the end of their editorial they included a poll, allowing Stern students to vote for either one of three new names for the paper, or for the name to stay the same. In the end, no change was made, as the vote came out in favor of keeping “The Observer” as the name of the paper.

While I think there is merit to the concerns expressed by students over the implications of observing in relation to commenting, I must admit that I am glad that the name of our paper was not changed. Not just because this paper has a proud history of over 60 years, to which its name is intrinsically linked, but also because I think those who accuse our paper’s name of implying passivity have missed the greater, positive implication of our name.

The connotation of observing is certainly far less active than the “take charge” connotation of commentating, but to observe is not an entirely passive act. Instead, it implies actively surveying and intellectually engaging with what one sees. One who observes does not just passively watch or record what is in front of her, but rather internalizes and thoughtfully considers what she sees, instead of simply rushing to pass judgement on it.

Stereotypically, it is considered a “male” trait to actively take charge of a situation and act on quick instinct, while it considered a “female” trait to restrain oneself and think things through a bit more before engaging in a situation. We are often led to believe, either by a certain brand of feminism or by society at large, that there is something inherently better about stereotypically “male” traits than stereotypical “female” traits. But to my view, the restraint and active looking implied by “observing” are more critical to quality journalism than a willingness to actively take charge of a situation implied by “commentating”.

Observing, really internalizing and thinking about what is in front of you before rushing to comment on it, breeds more nuanced and authentic reporting. While journalists cannot sit and ponder their stories for days on end before writing, there is a lot of value to taking the opportunity to look for a little bit longer, to turn a story on its side and see it from a different angle. By actively examining a story in this way one is able see the complexity within it. And once we can see the complexity in a story, we can, hopefully, report it with nuance, which is, of course, our ultimate goal.

This is not to say that the names of each newspaper are actually indicative of the character of their journalism. Both newspapers have shown they are capable of observing, of actively looking and delivering nuanced reporting. While “observing” may lie on the “female” side of the stereotypical gender divide, it should be–and I believe it is–valued and practiced by both male and female journalists at our school and at large.

This debate over the merits of observing and commentating reminds us to avoid the impulse to write off stereotypically “female” traits as negative or deficient, simply because they are “female”, as I believe many students did when it came to our paper’s name. Just because observing may sound more passive, and thus more stereotypically “female” than commentating, does not mean that it is inherently worse. Nor does it mean that all “female” traits are inherently better, just simply that we should evaluate every situation on its merits and not reflexively assume that “male” always equals better.  

Feminism has freed many women from the cage of the “ideal woman”, the woman who was the perfect, loving, nurturing mother, who sacrificed of herself for her husband and children, who was supportive but never assertive, charming and clever but never too smart as to threaten. But even as it rid us of these shackles, we should recognize that not all of the traits of that “ideal woman” were bad. To the contrary, it is good to nurture those we care for and be open to the emotions of love. It is good to be self-sacrificing, when the moment is right, and not to only think of oneself. And while it may be bad to be only a support, without an identity of one’s own, it is good to be supportive of those we care about.

Certain schools of feminist thought have sought to eliminate these traits wholesale; for women to lay aside the “ideal woman” in favor of the “ideal man”–to be only assertive, powerful, a leader. I find this tactic problematic because it entirely overlooks the positive elements in what were once stereotypically “female” traits. Breaking down the traditional gender divide should not mean that all women should be pushed to the “male” side, while the “female” side is forgotten, devalued, or even mocked. Rather it should mean that men and women can more comfortably and authentically inhabit the whole range of traits that exist, whether they were once considered “male” or “female”. Instead of exclusively lauding the traits of the “ideal man” we would do better to encourage men to take up traits that have long been considered “female”, and to appreciate their value. If women should try to be more assertive, more confident, more powerful, than why should men not try to be more nurturing, more self-sacrificing, and more supportive?

Criticisms of our paper’s name assume that “The Observer”, when compared to “The Commentator”, sounds more passive, and that this greater passivity is inherently bad. But not all things that are more passive are inherently worse than their more active counterparts. When it comes to journalism the more passive act of observing is, in my eyes, more laudable, as it implies greater thoughtfulness and purposeful restraint before rushing to pass judgement. I encourage and challenge all our school’s student journalists to take inspiration from our paper’s name and commit themselves to really observing.