First things first: All of us at Bitch HQ are bursting with excitement because the folks at Oregon Humanities have awarded us a grant to explore the intersections of advertising, feminism, and media literacy. This virtual symposium is called “Mad World: Gender, Advertising, and Identity in a Mediated World” and over the next eight months you’ll be seeing articles, blog posts, podcasts, and even a virtual book club on the website and in the magazine. Get your media-literacy pants on, people, because we’re doing this thing!
On this, the official Mad World blog, we’ll be discussing how advertising informs our identities and our ideas about sex and gender. Got an idea you’d like to discuss? Let us know! The Mad World blog will go up every Tuesday, and we want you to jump in early and often.
Let’s start with a discussion of this ad:
If you follow us on Twitter and Facebook (and we know you do), you’ll recall that we posted this video two weeks ago, along with this blog post by Jamie Doak at BUST that has us all wondering what, if anything, the spot means for feminists. Sure, many of us find the ad hilarious, but does that mean it isn’t sexist?
It’s tricky territory though when you label sexist jokes as feminist satire – because a lot of really sexist things get said as “jokes” when really they’re just sexist things being said. It’s hard for me to draw the line here because I DO think humor is a great way to introduce feminist ideals to a broader audience but I also don’t believe that humor is an excuse for sexism.
After posting the video, and that quote, on our Facebook page, a number of you claimed to like the ad, but you ‘fessed up to feeling like “bad feminists” because of it. One reader said, “I am a rotten feminist because I love this commercial.” Another chimed in with, “here, here. laughed and felt horrible and then laughed some more.” From a third commenter, “OMG, I’m so glad to hear other people are feeling the same way. I loooooooove this ad. And then I feel bad about it. And then he’s on a horse.” The guilty confessions abounded, and they got us thinking: What does it mean to feel like a “bad feminist”? Why do we feel guilty for liking certain media? Should we?
In this instance, we can probably say that some of the guilt comes from this particular product being marketed to men in a very stereotypically “manly man’s man” way. The man in question doesn’t think men should smell like ladies, and that could easily be construed as a sexist statement. What, exactly, do ladies smell like? And why would it be so horrible for men to smell the same way?
And what about the ways in which the ladies are framed by this ad? Do women really just want diamonds and men on horseback? (We do all want tickets to that thing we like of course, but who doesn’t?) What about women who have diamond allergies and prefer the bookish type? What about women who want their men to smell like ladies, or women who aren’t into men at all? Of course an advertisement can’t represent everyone’s individual preferences, but the fact that it presents diamonds and masculinity as a woman’s ultimate desires is telling when it comes to our culturally held notions about gender. Yes, it is somewhat of a parody, but does that make it less problematic? Or does the shorthand involved here (get laughs by referencing women’s love of diamonds) speak to a deeper problem?
Another issue likely at play for some of us is that this is a huge, corporate product designed to convince us to buy more corporate products. Would we feel differently if this ad had the same design and message but was for an independently owned men’s deodorant manufacturer, or a company owned by women? Maybe. Do we feel differently knowing that an independently owned advertising firm produced this ad? Why does that matter?
And what of being a “bad feminist”? Are you a bad feminist if you laugh at something sexist? What if you immediately follow up with a comment about how you wish things weren’t so sexist? Is it better to laugh and qualify than not to laugh at all? Being a feminist is tricky business, and we’re all going to find ourselves busting a gut from time to time at a commercial that might just be in poor, or even sexist, taste (heck, there are enough sexist ads out there that it’s bound to happen eventually). Does that make us bad feminists, or just human feminists? Where do we draw the line?
Of course, we are also working against the awful stereotype here that feminists just aren’t that funny. That’s not true, but because so many things that are supposed to make us laugh (Dude bro comedies, sexist and racist stand-up routines, Dane Cook) are actually just plain offensive, feminists get the reputation of being major buzzkills because we’re willing to speak up when something pisses us off. When it comes to advertising this happens even more frequently, because ads often use a sexist shorthand to get their messages across (think of just about every beer commercial you have ever witnessed for evidence of this). I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel a little stuck when I laugh at an offensive ad because I want to hold it down for my fellow feminists out there and eschew all things sexist, but then when I am offended I don’t always feel like speaking up because I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype that we’re all a bunch of Debbie Downers. Can I get a witness?
There are no hard and fast answers to be found here, but we’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. We mean it. Our Mad World discussion blog cannot exist without discussion. So, what do you do when you feel guilty for liking something that’s just not all that feminist? Do you have a strategy for determining what you’ll accept and what you won’t? How do we navigate the tricky territory of “bad feminism”? Discuss!
This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH’s grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.