Sexism has had a truly outstanding run over the past 12 days, with retailers, magazines and businesses falling over one another to demean, insult and offend women in the run up to Christmas.
FHM kicked things off with a fashion feature in which it told men “it’s never acceptable to wear your girlfriend/mother/victim’s socks”. Then, just as they thought they had the market cornered in normalizing gender based violence, enter Virgin Mobile with its advent calendar website gimmick, featuring an image of a man covering a woman’s eyes from behind with a gift box held in his other hand. The caption read: “The Gift of Christmas Surprise…Necklace? Or Chloroform?”
Keen not to miss out on the action, Zoo Australia muscled in with a picture on its Facebook page showing a model split in two at the waist, with readers asked whether they preferred the top or bottom half. Reasons given by men in the comments for choosing the lower half included “cause two holes are better than one”, and “cause it doesn’t have the ability to have its own fucking opinion”. Others specified the top half because “it can still make me a sandwich”, whilst one commenter suggested that if one hole wasn’t enough, you could just make another one.
Finally a woman sent us a picture of a greetings card she’d found on sale for 13-year-old girls, emblazoned with the words “If you had a rich boyfriend, he’d give you diamonds and rubies. Well maybe next year you will – when you’ve bigger boobies!”
Predictably, our highlighting of these issues, all of which have now been officially apologised for, met with the usual stream of “what’s the big deal/get a life/protest about something that matters” responses. Is it really a problem if FHM sticks a rape joke in the bottom corner of an article about what socks to wear? Is it a big deal if a greetings card tells 13-year-old girls they need to grow their “boobies” to catch a rich man? Should we be concentrating on more important things than Zoo Australia splitting a woman in half and musing over which bit is best? What does it matter if Virgin Mobile runs an offensive ‘joke’ that seems to make light of rape and domestic violence?
As several people pointed out, it matters because of the tragic case just last year of a man who used chloroform to rape his new wife after she refused to have sex with him. It matters because we are reaching the end of a year in which we have seen what can only be described as a torrent of reports of sexual assaults, paedophilia and abuse going back decades, many of them excused or ignored precisely because of a culture that made light of and normalized such incidents. But regardless of whether such events had hit the headlines recently, it matters because of the twelve thousand women whose stories we have collected this year, poignantly, heartbreakingly testifying to the real-life consequences of the situations and crimes these adverts mock and excuse.
Think that greetings card is just a harmless joke? Tell it to the 15-year-old girl who wrote “I always feel like if I don't look a certain way, if boys don't think I'm 'sexy' or 'hot' then I've failed and it doesn't even matter if I am a doctor or writer, I'll still feel like nothing.”
Think the FHM ‘victim’ joke was just a ‘banterous’ gag? It wouldn’t sound funny to the woman who told us “I have become so used to cat-calls, offensive jokes and even being followed that it doesn’t really register… I’ve been trapped by guys who have pushed me up against walls or grabbed my wrists in order to get attention. You can’t go out without being grabbed.” It is precisely the normalization of the idea of female victims in mainstream culture like this that made the same woman continue: “Even writing this now I am embarrassed because I feel like I’m making a big deal about nothing.”
And no, the Zoo Australia magazine ‘split her into pieces to dehumanize her even further as you objectify her’ and Virgin’s ‘wouldn’t it be completely hilarious if he incapacitated his wife so he could do whatever he wants with her’ gags aren’t ‘lighthearted’ or ‘harmless’ either. Think dehumanizing women in the public sphere, portraying them as sex objects and victims of men and simply vessels to be fucked or abused or turned into a great big joke is completely harmless? Tell it to the office worker whose boss referred to her by asking a colleague “if big tits has come in yet”. Tell it to the woman who was asked by her boss in front of 30 colleagues “If I ‘wax my crack’”. Tell it to the girl of 10 who was walking home from school when “two older boys said ‘show us your tits’”. Tell it to the child of 13 who didn’t even understand when two men in a white van asked her if she had “a tight pussy”. Tell it to the woman who reported being groped by strangers “at least once a week and often much more, regardless of what I wear, where I am, how I behave.” Tell it to the woman who declined to talk to a group of men and was pursued down the street by them, shouting “rape!” Tell it to schoolgirl who was “beaten by her boyfriend” and whose “friends asked her if she was going to stay with him until after the prom so she’d have a date”.
These women might never hit the headlines. But imagine telling it to every single one of them, and have a long, hard think about what they might say, before you come telling me it’s not a big deal.