Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Chair legs and advertising - the return of prurience

We used to laugh at Victorian prurience. You know the stuff about covering up more shapely chair legs in case men got excited at the sight of them. This is, of course, mostly nonsense and perhaps derives from the polite view back then that the word 'leg' was a little bit rude - one should say 'limb'.

Nevertheless, mid-Victorian society was pretty prurient (at least for public consumption in polite society - there weren't a shortage of peep shows and brothels) with women expected to keep their ankles from display, their eyes averted and their arms in sleeves. And when we read of this today our response is mostly bemusement at such antiquated ideas accompanied by reassuring ourselves that we are ever so much more enlightened in these matters than those prudish, hypocritical Victorians.

Seems to me that, to some extent, these moral standards are returning under the guise of a war against sexism:
The German far left-wing party Die Linke has proposed to remove all ‘erotic’ advertisement in the Berlin borough of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf. On advertisement space, property of the borough, no “sexist or woman-unfriendly advertisements” should be displayed. That at least is the objective of a request the party submitted to the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf District Ordinance Committee (BVV).
Now on the face of it this all seems pretty fair. Some will recall the days when cars were sold mostly by draping semi-naked women across their bonnets accompanied by phnarr-phnarr double entendres (like the Victorians covering up chair legs this is also largely untrue) and recognise that sexism is an issue with advertising. These days it's still true that (ceteris paribus) sex sells but also true that sexism is toxic as an advertising approach thereby making using sex a risky strategy.

The thing is that our East German ex-communists go on to say that their proposed stricture applies equally to “commercials for underwear, swimming gear, and sportswear.” Their proposals are essentially that any image of a woman not conforming to the ordinance will be banned - regardless of context or purpose. All of which raises the question as to whether selling a woman's swimming costume using an image of a woman wearing said costume is sexist. It seems to me that such an advertisement could be sexist if, for example, it showed the woman in the costume being leered at by fully clothed men but wouldn't be sexist if it merely showed the woman in the costume.

There does seem to be, on the back of concerns about sexism and gender equality, something of a return to prurience, to a world where images of women looking sexy are limited or controlled on the grounds that men might get the wrong idea (rather than because the images are exploitative in that they seek to draw a false association to the product). We should be a little bit uncomfortable with a world where images of women are covered up so as to protect women from men - it is exactly the thing many women felt liberated from in the 1960s and 1970s and takes us back to those hypocritical Victorian days we giggled at in school.

There is a discussion to have about limits. It should be OK to show a woman using a car in an advertisement for that car (only showing men driving would be pretty sexist after all). And advertisers are going to use an attractive woman as the model. But this is about appeal rather than sex even if, as a little ping of sexuality, a couple are shown driving to the beach in said car. At the other extreme is blatant "sex sells", not just nude models in a engineering supply company's calendar but a partly dressed model selling a male product like shaving cream or a cheeky dairy maid winking while holding out an ice cream.

The difficulty here is that there is that advertising bans (something I firmly believe to be infringements of free speech) are a blunt instrument in the battle against the objectification of women. And only provide support for those who would agree with that Victorian prurience we got rid of a few decades ago - people who really aren't on the side of women's liberation.

It would be a far better approach if we stayed with campaigns like that directed at Protein World's 'Beach Body Ready' ads. This used existing advertising self-regulation and consumer pressure as the means to get the advertiser to change its approach (I appreciate some feel the campaign was a little over-the-top but that debate isn't my point here). Where people argued for public authorities to institute bans - such as that Sadiq Khan has imposed on the London Underground - they move from social pressure to arguing for state controls on an aspect of speech.

Changes in the use of female objectification in advertising over the past few decades have largely come through social pressure rather than government dictat - if anything, government bans toddle along after the social change rather than promote that change. The campaign from Die Linke in Berlin blurs the boundaries between concerns about sexism and a left-wing dislike of advertising or commercial speech. It is also, in their terms, easy and crowd-pleasing politics - there's always a ready support for banning stuff from people who don't approve of that sort of thing.

Today we've an odd alliance between intersectional feminists, religious enthusiasts and old-fashioned puritans, all committed to removing sexually appealing female images from the public sphere. And all these groups, at least in what they say, agree on the reason - men can't be trusted. As a society we need to negotiate where the boundaries lie - it's a short step from not allowing public images of attractive women to blaming short skirts for rape, and then back to a world where, as the song said, "a glimpse of stocking was looked on a something shocking". Enforced prurience does little to protect women (at least if Victorian society was anything to go by) and removing images of women from the public sphere by way of advertising bans marks the return of such a world. We should, as they say, be careful what we wish for.



James Higham said...

Men can't be trusted around wimmin? Absolutely.

one night in bangkok said...

What about lesbians?