"The Ivy League Hustle (I Went to Princeton, Bitch)" -- An Analysis

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A twenty-something Princeton University graduate has earned nearly 300,000 views for her YouTube video "The Ivy League Hustle (I Went to Princeton, Bitch)." This clever rap parody by Nikki Muller is garnering national and international news coverage as an economic paradox of over-education and underemployment, and a useful image for the current critique of the liberal arts.

But the focus on this well-worn education-employment paradox, while more universally familiar, ignores the most pointed message of the song: Smart women are threatening to men and are expected to tone it down to be socially successful.

The video comically illustrates that even among “Ivy Leaguers,” women are expected to smile in the background and get along. And when a woman does speak up there might be no one left to listen. In the same way that Muller’s self-aggrandizing and biographical rap chases the pompous business school graduate away.

But a serious and troubling parallel exists in the world outside this rap-ruins-date scenario: The public discussion of the video itself largely ignores the gender issue and focuses on the far less-controversial message. On an even larger scale, when women (and I add minorities) do enter the public conversation, as Muller does by posting this video, there is no guarantee that anyone will hear and acknowledge.

I am too familiar with this dynamic on an interpersonal level, and an institutional one. As a member of the Princeton administration, and a woman of color with degrees from Princeton and Harvard myself, the public response raises the broader and more pervasive issue: How do we learn to hear and respect a minority voice?

Ironically, while media discussion depicts Muller as a degree holder from two Ivy League schools who can’t make more than $14 an hour, a paper by Stacy Dale and Princeton economist Alan Krueger, published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research, on the financial return on attending a selective college, is raising some eyebrows. The study finds no significant career earnings benefit to attending elite colleges for highly motivated students overall, but finds significant benefit for blacks and Hispanic students even after taking into account motivation and ambition.

It seems that an ambitious white girl, with or without an Ivy League pedigree, might have the same difficulty supporting herself as an artist. But to be sure, the provocateur in this video is a white woman with Ivy League degrees in literature and the arts, who could well have elected to pursue more "practical" education and traditional form of employment. If you don't take into account the gendered perspective, the video might not leave much of an impression. It's easy to have a laugh and move on.


A closer look shows clearly that economics is not the dominant concern of the video. And it is a big mistake to ignore what the video says about gender, an undeniable emphasis of the lyrics -- “I went to Princeton, bitch, and that’s something I don’t say/ cause that will make anything with a dick run away/ so I play it dumb and in case you hate/ I only name my school by the town or the state,” -- as well as the compelling visual frame of the video’s story.  As she speaks out, Muller transforms from a nice girl on a date to a loud, foul-mouthed rap persona, standing on the table and slugging from the bottle.

A gendered perspective almost always adds complexity to our understanding of our world. Last spring Princeton released the results of a study by the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women's Leadership, of which I was a member. Two of the facts that emerged are relevant here. Women students report lower self-confidence than men even before they've set foot on campus, and women who report having the most fulfilling college experiences -- who played vital roles within the university community and won awards and honors -- identified key moments when they were sought out or encouraged (to apply for the fellowship, try to publish the paper, run for office, take on a large responsibility,) by a mentor whether it be a peer, faculty member, or administrator.

That there are social and cultural reasons girls underestimate themselves may be a subject of debate. But like it or not, at Princeton, and elsewhere, incoming female students who are as dynamic and qualified as their male counterparts feel less confident. We now know, as women students and alumnae themselves have told us, that some form of mentoring can make all the difference. In response, Princeton guiding and supporting several initiatives to make mentorship a more integral part of student life.

In order to increase the numbers of women in leadership positions, to diversify the range of students who win the major fellowships, we need to do something differently. If this type of diversity is a value, then something needs to change certainly within, but critically, beyond the Ivory Tower, so that these and other bold women’s voices aren’t ignored or run away from.

While at my 25th reunion at Harvard, I attended a panel discussion of "the long shadow of Harvard" in our lives. The panelists were five psychiatrists/ psychologists, all white. The session started with discussion of the "long shadow" as the burden of early expectations of greatness which later seem to mock an ordinary or ordinarily successful existence, and prevent one from ever feeling that he or she has lived up to one's promise and potential.

The Harvard experience in real-time was also complicated. Many of us felt it was a privilege to study and live among so many talented and interesting people. Those of us who came from small towns or environments where we didn't fit in felt great relief in finally having a common language and more space where it was OK to be ourselves. For many that included freedom to be as smart as you were. I felt no pressure to "dumb it down" in conversations with men or other women, and that was liberating. Harvard could also be a harsh and unsympathetic environment. The sink-or-swim approach to student life was simultaneously empowering and isolating. Complex. I didn't sink, but I did take on a lot of water.

As a brown person at Harvard – black and Hispanic with a Spanish name – I became aware that people often equated brown skin with being “disadvantaged” or “underprepared” , and assumed I probably didn’t deserve to be there. With my "interesting" cultural mix, and a rural Colorado town behind me, I felt it was often assumed that I was a "diversity admit”. Sometimes people expressed surprise that I was "so articulate!" as though they'd suddenly come across a talking dog. The "long shadow" of this particular phenomenon, the lasting effect, was the frequent assumption that any admirable traits or behaviors I exhibited had to have been learned at Harvard. From table manners to social grace. If I was a talking dog at Harvard, after graduation I became a dog who could only have learned to speak at Harvard, and my past was erased.

At the reunion, I found that even a quarter of a century later it is still easier to acknowledge and discuss perspectives that are voiced more frequently than my own. My own comments during the panel were met with silence. And when someone asked me to elaborate at dinner, a cranky classmate shouted me down.

This is a reality I live every day, and one that is echoed in the content and reception of the "I went to Princeton" video. First, if the young Princeton alumna in the video cannot be valued and accepted as a smart and beautiful woman -- and not seen as intimidating and terrifying even by men with equally impressive degrees -- why then are we encouraging diversity in institutions when it does not change social norms?

And, if we choose to hear and validate only the least uncomfortable aspects of her message and experience -- yes, it's hard for new graduates to get a job -- what are we saying to smart girls and women, and the boys and men they love, befriend, work with, and rear, about the value of their voices and the validity of their experience?

Seeking diversity for an organization is like a choir searching for singers with diverse vocal ranges. It is great to have a wide range of voices, but if they don't have parts in the music, if no one can hear them and they don't get to sing their best, everyone loses. You can't hire an alto and then try to force her to sing soprano. The choir needs to write new harmonies, broaden its sound. Change the song.


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