Burn my bra? No chance mate… it’s Agent Provocateur.

Anyone who has followed the development of this blog from its origins in my rants and rallies to action on facebook and twitter will be aware of the campaign to have a sexist billboard produced by UlsterTrader.com banned by the Advertising Standards Authority. This was by any measure a successful campaign as the ASA did uphold our complaints and ban the ad. All of us who had given energy to composing our arguments and waiting and hoping through the various stages, were delighted with the adjudication and the validation it gave to the feminist voice that speaks up when women are degraded for commercial gain and sometimes is listened to and taken seriously.

What we were challenging in this case was what Object call “sex object culture”. It is the perpetuating of cultural norms and values that represent people, usually women, as objects to be judged purely on their sexual attractiveness and usefulness. Fuckability if you like. Now there’s no denying that some men and women do that to each other on a daily basis but many don’t, and it is completely inappropriate for a company to try and make a few quid selling this sex object stereotype to the masses.

The adjudication made by the ASA in this case was actually extremely progressive, in that it specifically referred to the objectification of women:

We considered that the image of the woman’s cleavage coupled with the strapline “Nice Headlamps.  What do you look for in a car?” was likely to be seen to objectify and degrade women by linking attributes of a woman, her cleavage, to attributes of a car, the headlamps, in a way that would be seen to imply a woman, like a car, was to be selected for those attributes.

More often than not adjudications of this sort use language like “offensive” or “obscene”, implying that the complainants are conservatives who might be a danger to other road users as driving past a billboard with a bit of cleavage will cause them to automatically shut their eyes while reciting the lord’s prayer. I’m proud to say we must have argued our case pretty convincingly, leaving them no choice but to highlight the sexism present in this blatant selling of female sexuality and offensive stereotyping.

My only annoyance with the whole affair was the good ol’ Northern Ireland news media. As I noted in yesterday’s post, I am looking forward to shining a spotlight on gender issues in the news here and that is partly driven by the way the press release from the ASA was handled. The BBC Newsline website and the Irish News appeared to copy and paste it word for word. (I have a close friend responsible for press releases from his own employer who is determined to drop the word ‘cock’ in one of these days.) Bland coverage but neutral, and a little bit of debate on the Nolan show during an episode which, thank the heavens, was hosted by a female presenter since Nolan was off sick. The biggest frustration for me was in the Belfast Telegraph / Sunday Life coverage of the issue. They ran a piece first in the Sunday Life and then repeated it in the women’s section of the Telegraph which only featured comment from an UlsterTrader representative and the model who had posed for the photo. In short, it was free advertising for both paties with absolutely no attempt to reflect an alternative analysis. Not too surprising to be honest but sad nonetheless.

So I wrote my first EVER letter to the editor. It went up on the website. And then the commenters got stuck in. The arguments of most of these commenters are old and cliched, unimaginative and lazy:

Go burn your bra Kellie. Seriously get over it.

Like I said… erm, no thanks. However, I also started to get a sense of how deeply ingrained this sex object culture is in Northern Ireland. How much we’ve bought into it and allowed it to dictate our choices, our purchases, our way of relating to each other. And how in the midst of it all the feminist voice is, for some people, as unwelcome and irrelevant as a Free Presbyterian at the Pride Parade. So I’ve decided, rather than dismiss the readership of the Tele and the Nolan phone-in enthusiasts as neanderthals, I’m going to take their arguments on board. Every day until the end of the week I will take a key argument that I heard over the course of the whole affair and try to meet it with understanding and (hopefully) intelligent counter-argument. I think it’s important to do this because I have no desire to be ignorant or prejudiced in my own analysis of gender and sexuality in our culture. I want to be able to state my claims in ways that give respect to the claims of others who don’t agree with me. AND I’m hoping to get better at convincing people I’m right :O)

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