According to this poster, October 13th is No Bra Day, supposedly an initiative to raise awareness of breast cancer (although it doesn't actually say that; it says it's in support of breast cancer. But, you know, we all make mistakes, right...). It runs with the tagline "Set the Tatas Free", which is reminiscent of another breast cancer awareness organisation, …
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I recently finished up a course on Rape and Sexual Assault. I was shocked to learn that there are people in the world who believe that rape culture does not exist–people who excuse, belittle, and stigmatize rape and sexual assault. Once you learn what rape culture is, you realize that it is everywhere. It is woven into our cultural narratives about sex, gender identity, and sexuality and reproduced constantly in our stories, from tasteless rape jokes to sensationalized sexual violence in procedural crime dramas.
What is Rape Culture?
“In a rape culture, people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate, rape. Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as “just the way things are” (Definition of Rape Culture from FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture).
What is Consent?
Consent is a major weapon in the fight against rape culture. Consent is…
- A voluntary, sober, imaginative, enthusiastic, creative, wanted, informed, mutual, honest, and verbal agreement
- An active agreement: Consent cannot be coerced
- A process, which must be asked for every step of the way; if you want to move to the next level of sexual intimacy, just ask
- Never implied and cannot be assumed, even in the context of a relationship. Just because you are in a relationship does not mean that you have permission to have sex with your partner. (from SAVP and Consent is Sexy¹).
Why is this so difficult for people to understand?
As simple as consent sounds, many people in our sex-negative, rape-excusing, patriarchal culture find the idea to be controversial. Realizing how vital consent is to healthy intimate relationships requires a lot of relearning. A lot of mainstream/violent pornography, music videos, lyrics, and ads enforce the idea that women* are always willing and ready for sex. Movies and television shows regularly create story-lines and plots that revolve around acquaintance rape involving drugs and alcohol².
Consent is not merely, “Do you want to have sex with me? (Check YES or NO). Consent is “…a process, which must be asked for every step of the way; if you want to move to the next level of sexual intimacy, just ask”. That idea scares people for a few reasons. Images of sex in the media enforce male entitlement to women’s* bodies as objects to be used for one-sided pleasure². ”We raise women to be nice, please others and put their needs last; we raise men to be entitled douchenozzles who don’t take no for an answer; and then we put the burden on women to be gatekeepers” (from Yes Means Yes). Images of sex in the media show sex as spontaneous, serious, and always pure sexy. Participants hardly ever speak or laugh (unless the scene is meant to be humorous in some way) and especially never communicate about their desires.
These images, coupled with the “process” idea of consent, have created a lot of satire and mocking of the idea of consent, beginning with the infamous Antioch College Consent Policy in the early 1990s. The idea of consent as a process was mocked as an unrealistic radical feminist ideal meant to shut all men up into prisons as rapists. One major reason that this belief is still held is because we do not have images in our media of people communicating their sexual desires or affirming consent during sexual activities without it being mocked. Consent is not solely verbal and it is performed in different ways depending on the context– people in a long-term sexual relationship will have different ways of affirming consent than people engaging in sexual activities together for the first time. I believe that including images of consent in our popular culture is a major stepping-stone in transforming and eventually ending rape culture.
Transforming Rape Culture
This Is What Consent Looks Like is a collective social media project to show media creators that erasing rape culture and celebrating consent is not difficult. It asks participants to “rewrite” rape culture in our popular media. So, pick a scene from your favorite film or TV show, figure out where consent is not articulated, and then rewrite the scene to include consent. The main purpose of this project is to show fans and creators of popular media that getting rid of rape culture and inserting consent into their media creations is not difficult and will not “ruin” their creative vision.
*I’ve used the word “woman” here because when looking at society and culture as a whole, women are represented in the media and in crime statistics as the majority of rape victims. However, it is vital to feminist thought to acknowledge that women are not solely rape victims and men are not solely rape perpetrators.
¹Many feminists take issue with the phrase “consent is sexy,” insisting that basic bodily integrity should not need to be sexualized in order to be respected. I wholly agree with this view, but I am not against the use of the slogan in all cases. I think that consent needs to be a part of our cultural narratives about sex– a major way of doing this is by showing consent as sexy or as part of “sexy” situations to encourage the dialogue about promoting consent and fighting rape culture.
² For more, see Dreamworlds 3,
As The Feminist Anthropologist is approaching its one year anniversary, I’ve been making a couple of changes to the site. First, you will see that you can now reach this webpage through the url: http://www.thefeministanthropologist.com. I am very excited about this change! Second, I am looking to increase my number of guest posts. If you would like to be a guest blogger or know someone who might be interested, please email me at thefeministanthropologist(at)gmail(dot)com.
As a feminist and social critic, I often point out how the advertising and marketing spheres are a major source of sexism and misogyny. From sexualization to objectification, advertisers know that sex (and poking at people’s insecurities) sells. Unfortunately, a common reaction to my blogs which point out the sexism and sheer ridiculousness of advertising and marketing is to claim that “It’s their job to sell you stuff!” I want to clear up why I believe that companies should be held responsible for how they market their products and why we as consumers should not accept sexism, sex and body-negativity, or misogyny as the status quo.
Popular consumerism feeds off of the sexism that already exists in society. This is how companies can get away with blatant sexism; unfortunately, many people just don’t notice sexist products or ads because they believe that it is “just the way things are.” JC Penney’s famously kicked up some anger with their t-shirt for young girls that read: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” More recently, Land’s End committed a major sexist advertising snafu by not only gendering the backpacks in their back-to-school issue, but by imbedding sexist messages in the ad copy itself. While the backpacks geared towards boys were “superhero tough,” the backpack marketed to girls were “tough as long division!”
Sexist ads exist because we live in a sexist society. By feeding off ideologies that already surround us, sexist media also perpetuates sexism and misogyny. Understanding the cyclical nature of harmful advertising is the first step to changing it.
From a feminist perspective this all seems very simple. It is easy to forget that some people make a living writing successful ad campaigns, or that others may accept that sexism sold to them because they don’t know there is another way. Organizations like the Better Business Bureau fight against false advertising for diet and medical products, but have yet to become very active in fighting against the more social harms of sexist business and advertising. I believe that while big change must come from consumers themselves, an awareness of social issues should be mandatory for those in the advertising and marketing fields. Advertising and marketing as a profession must be more self-reflective. It must reconcile a way to market effectively without perpetuating sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism, sex-negativity, body-negativity, etc. Some say this cannot be done, but there are many successful ads that fight against the status quo and have won companies plenty of positive media coverage. For example, a recent Ray Bans ad featured a gay couple holding hands. JC Penney was targeted by the conservative group One Million Moms for featured gay parents in their advertisements. Rather than give in to OMM’s protest, JC Penney affirmed its commitment to representing diverse families. This is one example of a company doing what they believe to be right, not necessarily what will sell more.
Calling attention to the way that sexism is perpetuated through seemingly harmless television shows, advertisements, magazine spreads, and marketing schemes is a way to disrupt the acceptance of sexism. Organizations like Miss Representation and Spark Summit do a wonderful job at calling companies out on a grander scale. Boycotting a product or writing a letter to the company explaining your disgust is always a good idea. Giving companies who use sexism to sell products lots of negative press is another step you can take. On a very micro-level, I have found that simply pointing something out to those who are around me while watching TV, riding the subway, or listening to the radio is more productive than you might think. Nothing makes me prouder than hearing my younger siblings declare, “That’s so sexist,” while watching television.
The above image has been going around Facebook to the same devastating results as the “When did this…become hotter than this…?” meme. Both images were taken from advertising and marketing campaigns by two large companies, Dove and Victoria’s Secret, who have been appropriating body positivity to continue to profit off of people’s insecurities. While the sale of false body positivity is all I see in these images, Facebook responded positively to Dove’s ad campaign and negatively to Victoria’s Secret’s.
These reactions of “ew, gross, way too skinny” about the VS models are not at all body-positive, and the celebration of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign gives them far too much credit.
Dove’s Real Beauty campaign showcases women whose bodies fall on the societally acceptable side of normal. While people love to tell a size 0 VS model to “eat a damn sandwich,” the same people appreciate Dove’s campaign, which only celebrates the size 6, size 8, size 10, maybe size 12 curves of a conventionally attractive woman. Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign is just a marketing front for selling a line of “firming creams” to women with insecurities about “flab” and cellulite. Does Dove’s campaign ad show a few more women of color, a few more “curvy” women, and a little bit less retouching than Victoria’s Secret’s ads do? Yes. But is Dove really the savior of women everywhere whose self-esteem is continuously torn down by our culture and media? Not a chance.
Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign has been around for a few years now and the criticisms of it are widely documented. Now, Victoria’s Secret–the cultural gatekeeper of sexual perfection and unattainable bodies–has weakly used body-positive language to sell bras to women who may worry that their partners prefer watching the VS fashion show to looking at their imperfect bodies. Even though “I Love My Body” is very weakly tied to actual bodies– the bras they are selling as called “Body” bras, so really it’s just “I Love My Bra”– the use of a body-positive statement to sell products is offensive.
Dove, Victoria’s Secret, and those who celebrate these campaigns need to understand that loving your body, appreciating real beauty, and being body-positive is incompatible with buying products to make you do so. These pathetic marketing campaigns continue to profit off our insecurities when the truth is that self-esteem cannot be bought. The same fake endorsements of body-positivity can be seen in Julia Bluhm and Spark Summit’s recent “success” in getting Seventeen Magazine to stop airbrushing models. While Seventeen talks the talk with its diplomacy with Bluhm and its “Body Peace Treaty,” the magazine cannot celebrate real bodies because it makes its business by advertising to girls that they need certain products to be prettier, cooler, sexier, and more desirable.
What is the solution to this? We all need to buy soap or lotion or those special halter-back bras from Victoria’s Secret; companies make a business selling us things. So buy the things you need–but don’t let them convince you that you “need” something to make you sexier, prettier, more confident, or more desirable. Be critical of advertising and don’t fall for the celebration of “body-positive advertising” that is just another front for manipulative marketing. Criticize the sexism, the airbrushing, and the message that you are not good enough. And don’t tell the VS model to eat a sandwich.