Sexism is Not Exciting

Something that we’ve known for ages and ages and ages is that women in advertising are more often than not portrayed sexually and are portrayed as objects. Sex sells ya know? People have talked about how it contributes to rape culture and how sexist it is, they’ve attacked everything from Abercrombie and Fitch to American Apparel, and yet I’m still left with one gigantic question:

Why do advertisers keep doing the same thing over and over again, and then labeling it as edgy or raw or cutting edge? Some of the big goals of advertising are to be fresh, to do the unexpected, to stand out from the crowd. For some reason these rules get tossed out the window when it comes to sexism and the objectification of women. The same tactics of using women as objects or goals in order to sell products has been around for decades, and let’s be perfectly honest here: it’s getting boring. We’ve seen it before. We’ve seen it in every damn mask it could possibly take. We’ve seen it sideways and upside down. A fair number of consumers have made it clear that they think it’s bullshit. There is absolutely nothing raw or edgy about it, as it’s using the same tired stereotypes, images, and constructs that have been around since we’ve had the means to document them. I for one would be happy if I never saw a commercial with a woman trying to make sexy lips ever again.

It makes absolutely no sense in terms of traditional marketing knowledge to keep using this. I suppose you could take the approach that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and argue that it’s been an effective marketing strategy for years and years. It’s the best way to make people insecure and thus WANT more to bring them a better sense of security. It’s the best way to bring in men who are really the most important consumers after all. It seems to me that the continue reliance of the advertising industry on sad stereotypes is a sign of a really broken capitalistic system that will go to any lengths to make money and to keep those in power at the top. It’s stagnating, and if I have any hope for all the new forms of media it would be that they could break the stranglehold of these old, tired media on our lives.

What do you think? Why does marketing keep using the same images over and over?

Coverflip: Some Meandering Thoughts About Gender and Marketing

Maureen Johnson (one of my absolute FAV authors especially for following on Twitter because she’s just as weird as I am) recently conducted a small experiment that she called Coverflip. The idea of the experiment was to take books and imagine if they were written by someone of the opposite gender as their true author, and then create a cover, thinking of how it would be different based on the gender of author. So for example you might take The Great Gatsby, imagine it was written by a woman, and design the cover for it. There were some really interesting covers, and some interesting reactions (many of which included things like “wow, now that this doesn’t have a girly cover I really want to read it!”), and I found myself thinking about how I view books that are marketed as chick lit.


I don’t read a lot of “chick lit”. Lately I’ve been into the classics because it took me so F’ing long to start reading them that I have to catch up, but when I read easy or fun books, I tend towards sci fi and fantasy. Now some of these are marketed with female oriented covers, but for the most part they highlight adventure or intrigue or mystery. I realized after this coverflip exercise that when I DO read chick lit books I often feel like I have to apologize: I try not to read them in public, I’m ashamed to be seen reading something that is marketed as trite and empty headed. I’m getting to the point where I’m a little self-conscious of reading ANY YA fiction in public (which is stupid because YA fiction is fantastic and I like it a lot better than most adult fiction which tries to be all edgy by having sex in it, but that’s a topic for another day), and I’m starting to realize thanks to this exercise that having shame about what you read is silly. When you are reading, you are doing something for yourself. You are occupying your free time, doing something that you enjoy. Why should you capitulate to what others suggest you SHOULD be reading rather than what you actually enjoy?


But Coverflip brought up more questions than just how societal pressures can force us to feel guilty about the things we actually enjoy. One of the biggest ones for me is about romance in fiction, how romance is marketed, and why we often view romance as an unimportant, badly written, or trashy topic. Romance is generally associated with female writers. In YA fiction, it’s often marketed towards girls, and viewed in the same way as chick flicks. Interestingly, one of the reasons I didn’t take John Green seriously for a while was because his covers gave off the same light, romancey vibe that a lot of female YA authors did. In my mind, that meant he didn’t write about important topics. Once I really read his books, I found that he engaged with some very basic questions of what it means to be human and to look for human connection. So why is it that when I think romance I think trite?


One obvious reason is because romance is considered feminine. Men aren’t expected to want romance. They’re expected to want sex or grit or violence. Romance is for women. Which means that it’s empty headed right? But the problem with that is that romance is actually a fairly universal drive. Romance is about connecting with another human being, about what it means to feel close, about what love is. Men have those drives too, just like women do. And even if women were the only ones who had those drives…what on earth is trite about trying to find someone to spend your life with? What is trite about human connection? What is trite about trying to understand what drives us to be around other people? These questions are not trite at all. Romance is about what makes us human and how our human nature resonates with others. This is far from trite, and so making covers of people making hearts with their hands diminishes the importance and power of what it is to be in love or to seek out love. Whether these read as feminine or masculine, it shouldn’t be diminished in this way.


An important element of this is the idea that women are relational and that men are independent. In the hierarchy of male and female, this means that individualism gets prioritized over relationships. Many of our great writers (or people who are considered great) write about people fending for themselves or overcoming odds: Jack London is a perfectly typical example of this, and he’s considered a Good and Serious writer for young adults (despite the fact that he focuses almost all of his descriptions on violence and doesn’t do a whole lot of focus on character growth). So for some reason books about relationships are considered unimportant. Obviously most books have relationships in them, but they are not the focus. Action is the focus. Books that are almost exclusively about relationships are designated as chick lit (even when they deal with important themes, a la Jane Austen). Again, it seems odd to me that books about family, friends, lovers are considered unimportant or boring.


In relation to this, many of the images on “feminine” coded books were of people, often people holding hands or kissing, young people, or women (or all of the above). In contrast, many of the “serious’ coded books were images of things, textual covers, or had fantasy styled covers. These types of dichotomies play on all sorts of sexist stereotypes about what is appealing to men and what is appealing to women, but one piece that seems very bizarre to me is the idea that covers with people on them are not as serious as covers with objects on them. What is it about a person on a cover that reads to us as “this book doesn’t tackle real issues”? Why do we seem to feel that humans or connecting to humans is unimportant? Why are we afraid of books that are open about the fact that they include people interacting with each other, or are even FOCUSED on people’s interactions with each other?


Overall, this experiment confirmed to me that in all sorts of marketing we view women as relational and men as doers or actors, individuals who venture forth. We view those individualistic stories as important, and we view stories of people relating to each other as trite. None of this makes any sense to me.  Every human being on the planet has relationships, and those relationships are what keep us alive, and often the things that make our lives worth living. Most often we read books because we want to connect with another person, to get inside the ideas and feelings of another life. The whole point of literature is connection on an emotional level, and yet when we advertise that openly the book is viewed as shallow. And beyond that, why should we feel guilty for books that might appeal to things that are silly or shallow within us? Why should we feel guilty for letting ourselves be goofy and bubble-headed? Is there something wrong with just entertaining ourselves with books, or are books supposed to be a bastion of academia, only for Serious Men and the few women who can be just as serious? But perhaps the biggest question left in my mind is why people on YA covers NEVER HAVE HEADS?

People and Profits: Finding Some Middle Ground

So my dear friend Benjamin who inspires about 99% of my posts lately (and who will be getting 75% of the $0 in profits I make from this post) linked me to the comments of the Abercrombie and Fitch CEO this morning. And I got annoyed (I think understandably) with the comments. And Ben was frustrated. He said that he could understand why Abercrombie marketed the way they did. While he thought it was wrong, it made sense and so he didn’t like how some people attacked it.


It took a while for us to get to the bottom of each other’s opinions, but I think a very telling statement he made was the following: “You are asking a man to give up his company, lose stocks, bankrupt 100’s of stockholders, and put him into poverty

I’m more asking for a solution”


I have NEVER heard someone say this straight out when I’m trying to criticize a company for bad policies before and I thought it was incredibly illuminating. Oftentimes when those on the left ask for higher standards from corporations and marketing, we think that we’re asking them to adjust to our demands as their market. We DON’T think we’re asking them to destroy their companies by taking actions that will sell no goods whatsoever and leave thousands of people bankrupt. We do think we might be asking them to take a slight hit in profits to balance with better marketing policies.


So I’m going to try to explain my thought process and what I think is the process of many social change advocates with an eye to capitalism and profits, and how we are NOT trying to bankrupt anyone or leave anyone out on the streets. Now first and foremost, it is the job of the people running a company in a capitalist society to listen to the people they’re trying to sell to so that they know what will sell and what their customers would like from them: the customers are always right after all. However with this knowledge in mind, big corporations also have a great deal more power than any of their individual customers because they have a lot of money and the actions or words of any individual will probably not really hurt them. Little old me writing this blog and saying “Abercrombie sucks and should be nice to fat people” will not cause Abercrombie to adopt fat-positive policies that then ruin their business. Nor am I asking them to.


When social justice advocates criticize these kinds of comments, what they are trying to do is send a message about the customer base. They are trying to say that the marketing techniques that are being used are not condoned or useful for many customers. They are also trying to bring to light to other people what is wrong with the comments and advocate that people boycott or in some other way illustrate their displeasure. We understand that profits are what drive corporations. And we are willing to reward corporations with profits. Dove has done fairly with with a positive body image campaign because people want to reward corporations that are doing things they see as good. If Abercrombie were to apologize and include XL and XXL sizes in their stores, I am fairly certain that the social justice crowd would be more likely to shop there. So what we are trying to do is exert the power that we do have as a group of customers.


This does not leave anyone homeless or any company bankrupt and without profits. What it DOES do is ask them to do their jobs effectively: to pay attention to what marketing strategies work and to change in accordance. If they cannot do that job and their business fails, that is their own fault. If they have pinned their business success on policies that don’t work, that offend their customers and drive people away, it is their own fault if their business fails, not the fault of those offended.


In addition, the likelihood that the CEO who made these remarks will ever end up homeless is very,very low. He has made a great deal of money off of these policies. However he hasn’t done so at no one’s expense. He has actively discriminated against fat individuals in his hiring practices. These kinds of policies are part of why fat individuals have a much harder time getting a job and advancing in their jobs. These kinds of policies COULD very easily and probably DO lead to AT LEAST one fat person being homeless or jobless. So the trade off here is that a company might go under if they can’t adjust their policies, and their management likely will survive without too much difficulty OR we can continue to discriminate against a large swath of the population and do things that we know for a fact severely diminish their quality of life.


So I think I’ve done a lot to explain the “liberal” position as it were. But what about the position that says “We need to make profits?” Well I don’t think liberals are really ignoring that position. In fact, what many of them are trying to do is simply shift where the profits lie. And I DO think that it’s understandable that some people have opinions that I disagree with. But that does not make them immune to criticism. What I think liberals COULD do to be more understanding to this position is to recognize that when we say “stop having douche policies” a lot of people hear “give up all your profits and go live in a cardboard box under a bridge”. We need to be very careful about what we’re saying: make it clear that we’re not asking for HUGE IMMEDIATE CHANGE THAT DESTROYS ALL PROFITS AND LEAVES EVERYONE DESTITUTE. We’re asking for the market to adjust itself and for consumers to adjust themselves so that our economy can continue while also promoting social justice causes. Emphasize that these things aren’t mutually exclusive (see Dove, although it does have its problems). Emphasize that we’re not trying to PUNISH anyone, we are simply asking for them to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. If their actions piss off a lot of people, they have to accept the responsibility for that.


Profits ARE what drives the world right now. Many of us don’t like that and we have the right to criticize that. However if we’re going to criticize those people motivated by profits, it works a lot better if we play their game.