The Savage Ballet of Sexist Advertising

I wrote two posts analyzing last year’s Super Bowl commercials.  This year, I figured there would be plenty of material to work with:  lots of examples of men being masculine by hurting each other and turning women into trophies, whatnot like cars or, just to change things up a bit, cheeseburgers.  And I was right:  examples abound.  So many, in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to choose which ones to discuss.  Should I spend my words on Audi, who encouraged teenage boys to take the car, take the girl, take the punch, and smirk all the way home?  Or GoDaddy, which presented a close-up, geeked-out fantasy in all its stereotyped glory?  I could examine, in excruciating detail, what it’s like to imagine being a woman lying on the beach while a scorpion cuts the tie on your bikini top (hint: it doesn’t make you want to cavort topless in the ocean, as Fiat seems to think it does).  And then there’s Calvin Klein, not to be outdone by last year’s H & M commercial, jumping on the bandwagon of male objectification so joyfully you can almost hear the gleeful cackling of the ad execs, prying open the door to a whole new world of possibilities.

Trouble is, nothing speaks to me, not today.  Or else it all speaks too loudly, in such a cacophony of painful ideas and exaggerated implementation that I want to shake my head and walk away.

Don’t worry, though.  I’m not going anywhere.  I always knew this was a marathon, not a sprint.

And this year, I have lots of company in my disgust:  Miss Representation had a campaign going, with thousands of people using the #NotBuyingIt hashtag on Twitter to call out the sexism in these commercials.  It’s heartening to see so many people out there who are fighting this fight, tired of the media shaping us in its own image.

And yet.

I’m not the same woman I was last year.  I’ve gone a few rounds with sexism, and I’ve come out of them more cynical, more determined, and, paradoxically, more hopeful. Here’s my roundup of Sexism Showdowns from last year, and their results:

  • After last year’s GoDaddy commercial, in which Danica Patrick allowed herself to be painted like a car, I (along with many others, led by Miss Representation) wrote to the company to tell them to stop their sexist advertising.  Their reply:  “Please understand we produce a variety of commercial messages and work to appeal to a wide range of audiences.”  (Read:  Other people like our sexist commercials.  So many that we are making tons of money.)
  • Not long after that, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut and said he’d like for her to make us all some sex videos.  Along with many others, I took to Twitter and Facebook to participate in a campaign aimed at getting Rush off the air; his comments about Fluke were just the latest in his racist, sexist rants.  Although the campaign against him made a dent—many advertisers fled his show—he’s still on the air.
  • In August, I took a stand against a picture that a local restaurant, Charley’s, posted on their Facebook wall, as a way to welcome back Longwood students.  I had a lengthy Facebook discussion with Charley’s management and supporters, none of whom admitted to the sexism in the picture, and some of whom attacked me personally.  The post I wrote about this picture—which depicted college men asking parents to honk if they dropped off their daughters—generated a great deal of discussion both in my community and on Facebook.  Although Charely’s never removed the picture, I did get people talking, and thinking, about sexism.

If discussion and thought about sexist advertising are the first step, what’s the next step?

Change.

And I don’t think it’s in the pocket of advertisers, who will always find a “wide audience” for sexism.

I think it’s in the hands of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the rules that govern them.

So do Robin Morgan, Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda, who are asking President Obama to appoint a female head of the FCC or FTC, which would be a historic move.  Here’s another historic move, and one we need badly:  to recognize that when commercial speech impinges on the self-image of a nation, we are not free.

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