What a Bloomingdale’s advert tells us about America’s understanding of rape

The chain apologised after the advert from its new holiday catalogue inspired an instant backlash online

Danielle Paquette
Thursday 12 November 2015 17:49 GMT
This advertisement is part of Bloomingdale's new holiday catalogue
This advertisement is part of Bloomingdale's new holiday catalogue (Bloomindale's/Imgur)

A woman is laughing, head tossed back, focused on something over her right shoulder. A man stares at her, unsmiling. The caption reads: Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.

This advertisement, part of Bloomingdale's new holiday catalogue, inspired instant backlash on the Web.

In response to the uproar, Bloomingdale’s issued a prompt apology: “In reflection of recent feedback, the copy we used in our recent catalogue was inappropriate and in poor taste.” A spokesman wouldn’t say how the spiking directive was approved.

Sarah Murnen. a psychology professor at Kenyon College in Ohio, printed the image for the gender studies class she teaches.

“The way he’s looking at her,” she said, “is definitely in a leering manner. And is saying ‘best friend’ supposed to make them gender-equal?”

Murnen scanned their outfits: Blazers, with a dash of glitz — apparent holiday party attire.

“And what is this?” she asked. “Some kind of business function they’re attending? This is the way we’re going to treat women in the workplace?”

The photo is perfect, she said, for a lecture about consent.

“It’s sending the message that it is it okay to have sex with people who are incapable of consent," she said. "These are decisions that should be made consciously and willingly.”

Drug-facilitated rape is one of the most commonly reported sexual assault crimes, Justice Department data show. At least half of sexual assaults involve the consumption of alcohol by the perpetrator, the victim, or both, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The conversation around America’s rape problem roared this year, as the Department of Education investigated at least 106 universities for their handling of sexual violence reports.

Following pressure from activists nationwide, California recently became the first state to adopt an affirmative consent policy, requiring students on public campuses to get permission at every stage of a sexual encounter. Roughly 1,400 places of higher education, now use some type of “yes means yes” standard in their sexual assault policies, according to the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management.

Jean Kilbourne, the filmmaker behind the award-winning documentary series “Killing Us Softly: America’s Image of Women,” said the catalogue "shows how deep these attitudes run and how subconscious they are, really."

She added, "I doubt the person who created this was consciously thinking about sexual assault. Male or female, whoever it was who came up with this — and the many people who okayed it —just don't get it. Date rape is still a huge problem — and yes, there’s more attention paid to it than before, but not enough attention."

Bloomingdale's is the second large company this year to face accusations of promoting rape. In April, an ill-fated Bud Light label went viral: “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”

At the time, Francine Katz, Anheuser-Busch’s former highest ranking woman, blamed the company’s lack of female employees for the creative stumble.Seventeen percent of full-time, salaried employees at the beer giant are women, a 2014 company report shows.

Bloomingdale’s, however, doesn’t have a similar gender imbalance. Nearly three-quarters of managers across Macy’s Inc., its parent company, are women, an investor’s report shows. Six of the 13 board members are women.

So, as the issue of sexual assault in the U.S. breaks into mainstream consciousness, how did a company of women catering to women allow what one Twitter user called a “pre-roofie Holiday ad” into its catalogue?

Murnen, who has co-authored several studies on how women are portrayed in the media, offers one theory, “Women can be sexist, too.”

“There’s a type of sexism called benevolent sexism, and it doesn’t seem as bad to people,” she continued. “It’s seen as less harmful but it’s more insidious.”

© Washington Post

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