Edit: I have noticed (and it has been pointed out to me) that in my original posting I mis-attributed the letters to the Straits Times, when they were actually published in the print & online versions of Today. The post has since been corrected.
The backstory: a lady by the name of Grace Leong writes in to the
Straits Times Today forum complaining about a risque womens’ lingerie advertisement on a public billboard. A gentleman by the name of Gary Ow writes in a clever response about lighting and photography that would be funny as a joke while having a drink with friends, intellectual gibberish on a semi-formal forum in a national newspaper. The response gets circulated around with great cheer on the Internet, notably by local blogging rockstar Mr. Brown.
I.. am not happy about this.
Alright. Let’s have a look at the two letters. The first one, by Ms Grace Leong, is riddled with issues. I will not deny that. Assuming that all women would be “too embarrassed” to look at the ad is… problematic at best, horribly horribly stereotypical at worst. And her horror that children and teens will be exposed to the same ad sounds a lot like a “think of the children, they’ll be corrupted!”-type argument (even if this point has salient truth in it–just not about OMG SEX IS DIRTY EW). But her last paragraph–even if unfortunately worded–brings up a good point: the lingerie ad objectifies women. And that is Not A Good Thing.
Mr Gary Ow’s “response”? To completely ignore whatever points she made and instead going on about lighting and focus of the photo. Of course! You’ve got me; I’ve seen the error of my ways now. It’s totally okay to objectify women because the photography is beautiful and it pleases the men who look at it. Mr Gary Ow must be patting himself heartily on the back right now, he’s so clever, mocking that silly hysterical woman’s legitimate concerns.
Thanks for underscoring exactly what Ms Grace Leong was trying to say, you brilliant man you. Her argument wasn’t even all that sound, but your response perfectly, perfectly exemplifies why this sort of advertising is problematic and has wider implications for society. Round of applause! You’ve outdone yourself.
But no. The story just doesn’t end there, does it? It’s not enough that the one of the nation’s biggest newspapers gives exposure to opinions of this level of douchbaggery. When the response letter gets circulated about Twitter (multiple times on my own timeline), not only does it get lauded as an EPIC WIN REPLY (epic win , you hear that women? The menz have spoken!), it also gets tagged with the ugly undercurrent of “good on that man for one-upping that prude“, with all the delicious implication that there must be something wrong with that woman who wrote it, because she isn’t enjoying being turned into a sexual object!
And when I start pointing out these things on Twitter, the epic game of Sexist Joke Bingo begins. “Maybe he didn’t MEAN to be offensive!” “It’s just a joke, I found it funny, why are you taking it so seriously?” “Can’t you just take it as a compliment?” With a bonus side of Oppression Olympics, and then, after realizing I wouldn’t quit about it, threats of unfollowing, “scary feminists are oppressing me”, etc.
I wish we could talk about male privilege in schools.** I wish we could teach kids the hard truths about how much women still suffer from being boxed into the roles that patriarchal society has prepared for them, and that even though great leaps have been made in terms of gender equality we’ve still got a long, long way to go before we get there. Even if they don’t agree with any of it, at least people will be less prone to assume that I’m attacking them personally when I point out their privilege or misogyny. It’s not just about you, really. This is everybody’s problem.
And yes–before I start getting responses that go “But I’m a woman, and I thought that letter was funny”, we did talk about that as well. And it boils down to this– whether you thought it was funny or not, it doesn’t change the fact that this is still a horribly sexist letter that was published in the most widely-circulated English-language newspaper in the country, in the forum pages which have, in the past, been shown to have enough influence to trigger changes in public policy. Just being a woman doesn’t exempt one from contributing to sexism against women, at all. I know plenty of sexist women. Some of them are even worse than the sexist men I know.
But how can a woman be sexist against women, you ask? That’s because we’ve been all brought up in this environment that still says women must be like this and men should be like that. And it gets to you. It really does. Even I am not immune to their insidious effects. Every day, starting from when we were little girls until we become middle-aged aunties and then old ladies, we get bombarded with messages that a our worth is tied to our looks, that to be beautiful and thin is the key to happiness, that the measure of our femininity is how attractive we are to the men who look at us. Hundreds and thousands of messages, from TV and movies and magazines and advertising on the side of buses.
Including scantily-clad, titillating lingerie models on billboards in very public arenas.
Think about that.
ETA: My friend Jo has written a long, thoughtful (and somewhat forceful) piece about the issue as well. Check it out: War of the Genders
**In fact I wish we could talk about all kinds of privilege in general. Straight privilege, class privilege, and (in the case of Singapore) Chinese privilege… but of course we couldn’t have that since Singapore is a meritocracy and privilege doesn’t exist at all, you just have to work hard hard and you will get to the good things in life.