Preposterous Universe

Monday, June 13, 2005
The important shit

Remember the Miller Lite catfight ads? Two attractive and impossibly buxom young women are enjoying lunch and enter into the venerable "Tastes Great"/"Less Filling" argument. Except that, unlike John Madden and Bob Uecker, the women are soon tumbling into a fountain and ripping each others' clothes off, as the camera scans over their bodies. We then cut to two guys inside a bar, saying stuff like "Yeah, that would be a great ad! I would definitely buy whatever they were selling!" We then pan to the two women sitting next to them, also very attractive but not artificially enhanced, who are looking at their companions with undisguised contempt.

I liked those ads. They were clever and funny, and succeeded in having it both ways -- appealing to cheesecake instincts while parodying them at the same time. And unmistakably commenting on the cluelessness of guys in general, who would blithely ignore the gorgeous real women sitting next to them in order to indulge in an artificially-enhanced fantasy.

However, things aren't so simple. The attitudes that the ads were parodying really do exist. We breathe a cultural atmosphere in which women are often put into the role of objects to be manipulated for the sexual gratification of men, to the detriment of their status as equal persons. The battle to overcome these attitudes has been fought by feminists for generations, but is a long way from being won. To a lot of people, this kind of "soft" issue is unimportant, and detracts from the "hard" issues (e.g. equal pay for equal work) that women should be fighting for. But this soft/hard distinction isn't nearly so clear-cut as we might be tempted to believe. The reasons why women don't get equal pay for equal work ultimately come down to how men and women are perceived by the people in power who set the salaries, and these perceptions are manifestly shaped by the cultural messages that are beamed at us from every direction. Fighting to spread women's suffrage through the world and to preserve the right to an abortion is undoubtedly important, but so is the battle to use inclusive language or to allow women to keep their names when they get married. Ideas matter. Some of my friends have joked that the Larry Summers flap was the best thing that ever happened to women in science, since it jolted universities into taking the problem seriously, but that's just wrong -- thousands of female high-school and college students have now heard that the President of Harvard thinks they don't have the mental capacities to be scientists, and it will take years to undo that damage. To change the world, you have to change how people think about it.

I don't believe that the Miller Lite ads are the best target for a feminist critique; we are surrounded by images of objectified women's sexuality being deployed to sell products or ideas, without any ironic intent whatsoever, and I don't think that much damage is done by this kind of over-the-top parody. Nevertheless, I am certainly sympathetic to people who feel otherwise. I take very seriously the possibility that actual women might know better than I do how it feels to be bombarded by this kind of imagery on a daily basis. So, for example, if I started playing the ad on my website and I received complaints from people who were offended, I wouldn't hesitate to take it down. It's just not such a big deal, much more a matter of simple politeness than an esoteric point of feminist theory. If I'm serving lamb chops at a dinner party, and I learn that one my guests is a vegetarian, I would find something else to serve them, regardless of whether I agreed with their ethical reasons for not eating meat.

Fast-forward to the present day. To plug the reality TV series "The Real Gilligan's Island," TBS has made it's own catfight ad, featuring impossibly buxom avatars of Mary Ann and Ginger engaging in a pie fight (left). On every level, this ad isn't nearly as good as the Miller Lite ads; it's not very well produced, nor is there any ironic framing story. Basically an uninspired effort.

But someone working for the ad agency had two strokes of genius -- first, advertise for the ad itself, in a sort of meta-campaign (this is actually becoming pretty common, so not too much genius there). But second and more importantly, carry out the meta-campaign via blog ads on liberal websites like Daily Kos. I am presuming this was genius rather than just dumb luck, but it was startlingly effective in stirring up controversy, which undoubtedly got the ad much more attention than it would otherwise have received. Some people were amused by the ad, but others complained that it was demeaning to women. On a website purportedly devoted to championing liberal ideals of equality for all, perhaps it isn't perfectly appropriate to feature an ad that treats women like objects.

Again, I don't personally feel that an ad like this is the most effective target for our approbation. You don't have to look very hard on conservative websites to find similar ads that use women's bodies to sell stuff without any trace of irony, such as the ad on the right that you can find at Power Line. But once again, I'm also sympathetic. The standards are different, as they should be, for our rivals than they are for our friends. If a substantial fraction of the people I claim to be fighting for are made uncomfortable by an ad like that, it wouldn't seem to be that hard a decision just to remove it, and perhaps begin a discussion about the principles involved. No matter how committed we may be, we always have something to learn.

This is not the course that Kos chose to take. Here is his response to the flap.
Whatever. Feel free to be offended. I find such humorless, knee-jerk reactions, to be tedious at best, sanctimonious and arrogant at worst. I don't care for such sanctimony from Joe Lieberman, I don't care for it from anyone else. Some people find such content offensive. Some people find it arousing. Some people find it funny. To each his or her own.

But I am not Lieberman. I won't sit there and judge pop culture and act as gatekeeper to what I think is "appropriate", and what isn't.

And I certainly won't let the sanctimonious women's studies set play that role on this site. Feel free to be offended. Feel free to claim that I'm somehow abandoning "progressive principles" by running the ad. It's a free country. Feel free to storm off in a huff. Other deserving bloggers could use the patronage.

Me, I'll focus on the important shit.
This comment falls somewhat short of perfectly sympathetic and open-minded. Indeed, it seems really dumb, which is what I don't get. Kos is a professional political consultant. Is this the kind of advice he gives his clients? That when some of their constituents complain about something that is important to them, they should be told to feel free to storm off?

The ad itself generated a tiny amount of grumbling, but Kos's response set off a firestorm, as it should have. See comments at Shakespeare's Sister (who has been singled out as the reason why Democrats can't win), Feministe, Pandagon, Bitch, PhD, Echidne of the Snakes, Creek Running North, Big Brass Blog, and Media Girl, as well as about 10,000 other places. There is also an interesting analysis of the comments at Kos by Sarah at Sampo, and some folks have started an entire new blog, Women Kossaks, to discuss these issues.

There are two things going on in Kos's response, both of which are unfortunate. One is that he obviously just doesn't think that women's feelings about these issues are all that important. It is always the case that sub-groups of large political movements will complain about being taken for granted, but this is a pretty clear example of where it's really true. Kos himself would obviously disagree; his attitude is that women's interests are best served by getting Democrats into power, and that goal is not helped by getting distracted by pie fights. He has a series of posts up (one, two, three) in which he tries to elaborate on the "core values" of the Democratic party -- as distinguished from those single-issue "special interests" that threaten to obscure the more important goals. This is by no means a crazy attitude, in fact there is a lot of truth to it. But Kos's stubborn tone-deafness about women's issues reveals an underlying cluelessness -- he doesn't come close to appreciating how important some of these issues are to women (who comprise, after all, well over half of Democratic voters), and how important they should therefore be to Democrats.

In a perfect world, where men and women were actually treated equally, something like the TBS ad would be completely harmless. The non-perfect world in which we actually live is a different story. (One indication of the fact that the world has not achieved perfect gender equity is the paucity of ads featuring oil-wrestling matches between hunky men in Speedos. Not, I expect, that such imagery would be very attractive to many people of either sex.) We can argue about the particular details, but it is by no means crazy to suggest that overcoming images like those in the pie fight is a crucial step in leveling the playing field between men and women -- which is, everyone would agree, the important shit.

The other unfortunate thing, which others have commented on, is the underlying anti-intellectual tone of the whole discussion, as exemplified by the "women's studies set" crack (for which he later semi-apologized). There is some feeling of uneasy co-existence between the "activist" and "academic" branches of modern liberalism, and these "soft" feminist issues are one of the points of major discomfort. People who are in the trenches working hard to advance progressive causes don't like to hear some intellectual telling them that even they are not quite as liberal and egalitarian as they would like to think. (It is left as an exercise for the reader to figure out how this kind of macho defensiveness aligns with stereotypical male/female attitudes.) And, goodness knows, people sitting in ivory towers thinking about cultural hegemony might not be the best guide to practical action.

But that's exactly the point -- both "sides" of the academic/activist split have a lot to learn from each other. I remember a lecture by Cornel West, where he chastised some of his liberal white friends who were convinced that they had personally overcome any hint of racism -- "I still am discovering racist attitudes lurking in my own thoughts, so I know that my white brothers have a way to go themselves." The problem was never really the stupid pie fight ad, it was the idea that complaining about the ad was somehow petty and illegitimate. It's great when men are committed to greater equality for women, but frustrating when they are convinced that they know all the answers and end up sounding patronizing and clueless, rather than sincerely listening to what actual women have to say. (Okay, that's a completely trite observation that applies to any group speaking about any other group. But "Patronizing and Clueless" would make a great name for a band.)

Thanks to Shakespeare's Sister for nudging me and others to talk about this. Go wish her a happy anniversary!

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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