A Reader told us about a recent controversy at the University of Southampton in the U.K. The campus Student Unions sponsored a “women’s day” that promoted women’s health. It coincided with International Women’s Day. How did they advertise it? See for yourself:
If I had no other information, I’d assume that was a poster meant to attract men to some type of event with a bikini contest.
A poster for “men’s day” also appeared; according to the designers, it was to make fun of, and emphasize, the tongue-in-cheek nature of designs for women’s day. Drawing on stereotypes of masculinity, the poster promises a hog roast, gadgets, manly competitions, a sperm bank, and “sweat, blood, tears”:
Many criticized the women’s day promotional poster, arguing it was insensitive and inappropriate for an event aimed at women’s issues and coinciding with an international day designed to bring attention to women’s accomplishments as well as continued discrimination and barriers to opportunities. Critics said the use of thin, scantily-clad (White) women reinforced unhealthy beauty ideals, and also noted that both men (Ewan McGregor and Robert Pattinson) included in the poster (for no clear reason) were fully clothed while the women are in bikinis.
The VP of Welfare and Societies issued an apology. She said that the person in charge of university policies and programs related to women’s issues, a student worker, receives no training, which will be changed for the next academic year. Here’s part of the statement:
It is important to note that traditionally both SUSU events have focused around health and wellbeing rather than the social, political or historical aspects of the female experience. This is reflected in the correlation with Men’s day, if we were focusing on culture and feminism particularly then it might be inappropriate to have a men’s day, however on the subject of health and wellbeing there are many issues which affect either men or women and thus it makes sense for the binary format, and to hold separate days for each sex.
In regard to the specific content of the poster the idea was to run a ‘tongue in cheek’ campaign to publicise the day, to use gimmicks such as the doughnut stall, male eye-candy on the poster and sing-star to encourage female students, who would be put off by using the serious messages of women’s issues in our promotion, to attend the day, I’m sure we’ve all come across many women who regularly start sentences with “I’m not a feminist, but…”. The idea of promoting a ‘Macho’ day for Men’s day was highly effective and the union was filled with male and female students who were drawn in by the gimmicks of the day and left with valuable information on sexual health and cancer awareness.
There are a couple of interesting things there. Notice the assumption about men and feminism in the first paragraph: “…if we were focusing on culture and feminism particularly then it might be inappropriate to have a men’s day…”. The implication is that men’s issues and feminism are unconnected, and that if you want to highlight feminism, focusing on men in any way undermines your purpose. Given that I believe there’s no way to discuss gender without looking at the social constructions of both masculinity and femininity, that men can certainly be feminists, and that gender inequality hurts women and men, I found that statement jarring.
Then she asserts that the idea behind the poster — the male eye candy, the references to cocktails and sweets, the women in bikinis — was to appeal to women who wouldn’t attend a clearly “feminist” event. I think she’s got an interesting point there, in that she’s not wrong: I’m certain that many women who showed up and did receive useful information wouldn’t have attended if it appeared to be an event oriented around, or organized by, feminists.
But does avoiding appearing too “serious” about women’s issues mean the only options we have are to present the types of images of women we regularly see that sexually objectify them and reinforce unrealistic beauty standards? Do you have to actively identify as a feminist to possibly appreciate seeing a range of women’s bodies? For instance, Glamour has received a lot of positive feedback for showing women who don’t fit the stick-thin model loo,, yet I doubt most Glamour readers call themselves feminists.
So what’s your take on all this?