public service announcements

Gay men and bisexual men still represent a disproportionate number of HIV cases in the United States (CDC).  In addition, African-American and Latino men are significantly more likely than white men to be diagnosed with HIV and die from AIDS-related illnesses.  Numerous HIV prevention campaigns are thus aimed at these populations.

It’s important to try to reduce the HIV among these populations, but we also need to think critically about how prevention strategies reinforce stigmatization.

For example, this ad from a western Massachusetts clinic uses the phrase “man up, get tested” — taking care of yourself by getting tested for HIV is linked to your masculinity.  What’s interesting is that by including only men of color in the photo, the ad suggests that black and Latino men are particularly obsessed with their masculinity, more so, perhaps, than white men.  It also potentially reinforces stereotypes about black men as hyper-sexualized and Latino men as machismo.

Second, a New York City campaign released in late 2010 uses fear to reach young gay men who are often thought to be complacent about the consequences of HIV disease now that life-saving medications are widely available in the U.S. and people can live with the virus for decades.  Gay and bisexual men are encouraged to use condoms through a commercial that reminds viewers “it’s never just HIV” by featuring a close-up photo of anal cancer among other (potential) HIV/AIDS related illnesses.  The video was applauded for its frank depiction of risk in the face of public apathy about the dangers of HIV/AIDS while simultaneously condemned for sensationalizing and stigmatizing gay sex:

In the face of stark HIV/AIDS inequalities among gay men and people of color, it’s clear that new prevention strategies are needed.  At the same, however, we also need to think about how we reinforce damaging and stigmatizing ideas about race, gender, and sexuality.


Christie Barcelos is a doctoral student in Public Health/Community Health Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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Cross-posted at Scientopia.

fds sent us a link to a set of “extreme” ads.  One of them was an Italian ad designed to draw attention to the seriousness of child sexual abuse.  I’ve placed it after the jump because it is VERY disconcerting.  My comments may be quite provocative as well.


We’ve posted previously about the ways in which World War II posters aimed at U.S. soldiers warned against “venereal disease” (what we now know as sexually transmitted infections) by personifying them as dangerous, diseased women.  Molly W. and Jessica H. have shown us to a new source of propaganda posters, so now seems as good a time to revisit the phenomenon.  In our previous post, I articulated the problem as follows:

Remember, venereal disease is NOT a woman. It’s bacteria or virus that passes between women and men. Women do not give it to men. Women and men pass it to each other. When venereal disease is personified as a woman, it makes women the diseased, guilty party and men the vulnerable, innocent party.

This first poster is an excellent example.  In it, the woman is synonymous with death:

In other posters, women are simply seen as the diseased party.  Concern that a soldier might pass disease to “pick ups” and “prostitutes” is unspoken.  This is funny, given that the reason for this propaganda was sky-high rates of VD among soldiers.

So “pick ups” and “prostitutes” were seen as vectors of disease.  They were the guilty party.  In contrast, wives are portrayed as innocent.  Another example of the dividing of women into virgins and whores:

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Recently at Feministing, Maya Dusenbery wrote about an ad from Germany’s International Human Rights campaign that, as she put it, is “a lesson in how not to advocate for women’s rights.”

The translation of the text is “Oppressed women are easily overlooked. Please support us in the fight for their rights.”

As Dusenbery writes,

It seems the folks who created this ad not only have a hard time seeing agency but actually went out of their way to erase it as thoroughly as possible and then stomp on it some more. And then equated women who wear the burqa with bags of trash. Literally.

I completely agree, and would like to add some broader context.  This is not at all surprising, given the recent of attempts in the West to obscure the agency of Muslim women in juxtaposition to their white, Western saviors. One of the more blatant examples of this was the discourse of the United States government that it was going to war in Afghanistan in part to save Afghan women from the Taliban. Laura Shepherd argued in an excellent 2006 article in The International Feminist Journal of Politics (which I’vecited before) that the US discursively constructed Afghan women as the “Helpless Victim” that was submissive and lacking agency, under the oppressive control of the “Irrational Barbarian.” This discourse, was used, of course, to posit the United States (specifically, its military) as the saviors who could rectify the situation for these women. Much as the agency of the women in the German PSA was erased, this narrative denied the agency of Afghan women, who, as Shepherd writes, are afforded “only pity and a certain voyeuristic attraction” (p. 20).

Of course, this specific discourse hasn’t ended. As this TIME Magazine cover from last year shows, it continues to serve as a means of justifying the US occupation of Afghanistan.

(Cover to the August 9, 2010 edition of TIME)

This discourse assumes, obviously, that the US presence in Afghanistan is a clear benefit for women in the country, a position at least some women’s organizations in Afghanistan contest. Samhita Mukhopadhyay at Feministing had an excellent post on this issue last summer.

I should also mention France’s recently-instituted ban on the full-faced veil, which Dusenbery argues – citing Jos Truitt – is a similar erasure of agency. I agree with her, and again would add that this fits in with this general (Orientalist) discourse about Muslim women, their uncivilized oppressors, and their White saviors.

John McMahon is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he also participates in the Women’s Studies Certificate Program.  He is interested in post-structuralism, issues relating to men and feminism, gendered practices in international relations, gender and political theory, and questions of American state identity.  John blogs at Facile Gestures, where this post originally appeared.

See also our post in which we criticize a set of public service ads that compared women the genital cutting to blow up sex dolls.

Sometimes public service announcements miss the mark.  Like really, really miss the mark.  In 2009 I described an anti-teen pregnancy PSA as gut-wrenchingly horrible and the feeling has not waned with time.  It suggests that teenagers who have gotten (someone) pregnant are dirty, cheap pricks, nobodies, and rejects.  We’ve also highlighted PSAs against statutory rape featuring children with giant breasts and an anti-domestic violence campaign in which you “hit the bitch.”

The campaign I’d like to discuss in this post is along these lines.  Brought to my attention by Debbie at Body Impolitic, it is the Georgia Children’s Health Alliance’s anti-childhood obesity campaign.  And it shames fat children and encourages viewers to retain negative stereotypes about them.  First, I wonder how it must feel to be chosen to be the posterchild for this campaign?

Second, some of the short videos available on the website confirm nasty stereotypes about fat people.  Like, all they do is eat:

Ironically, some of the videos acknowledge that fat children are subject to discrimination (at least from other kids), but that doesn’t appear to have stopped them from feeding that prejudice with their message.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Last year I wrote about a series of billboards in Atlanta that re-framed the abortion debate as a race issue. The billboards featured a child’s face and read “Black Children are an Endangered Species.” A new billboard, in the same theme, has appeared in New York City and was sent in by Kristy H. and Kelly.  Featuring a young girl, it reads: “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb”:

Three points:

(1) People without economic resources —  including, disproportionately, black women — are more likely to end pregnancies in abortion. This is not a trivial matter; many women in the U.S. have abortions because they can’t afford (more) children.  It’s terribly saddening to think that some women abort children they want.  And some members of the Black community do argue that this is a form of genocide.

(2) This ad, however, doesn’t come across to me as sympathetic to Black women.  The language in the ad leaves the aborting woman unstated, but still culpable.  She is simultaneously reduced to a womb and accused of placing her child in danger (of being a murderer?).  As Michael Shaw at BagNewsNotes suggests, this ad appears to happily trigger our thoughts of Black people and Black spaces as violent.  Is this ad appealing to the Black community?  Or is it appealing to stereotypes about Black people as a strategic move in the anti-abortion debate?

(3) Finally, as I wrote in my previous post, and on a different note, the message illustrates something very interesting about social movements and framing.

The fact that abortion is highly politicized in the United States, deeply connected to feminism (but not race or class movements), and framed as a specifically-gendered contest between “life” and “choice” seems natural to most Americans. Indeed, it’s hard for many Americans to imagine a world in which the procedure is less politicized or debated differently.  But the politics of abortion in the U.S. is not the only kind of abortion politics that could exist… [see, for example, Shaping Abortion Discourse].  So, whether you agree or disagree with the claims in these billboards, they nicely jolt us out of our acceptance of abortion politics as is.  How might thinking about abortion as a race issue or a class issue change the debate?

Source: Gawker.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Anna M., Naomi B., Amanda C., Ben Z., and SpeZek sent in a new PETA ad campaign, the latest in a twisted story of objectification metaphor.

Feminists in the ’70s protested the objectification of women by metaphorically linking meat and female bodies (e.g., “we should not be treating women like pieces of meat”).  Meat is meat, so the argument went, but women are human beings and should be treated as such.

In mocking response, in 1978 Larry Flynt put a woman being chewed up by a meat grinder on the cover of Hustler magazine. We will treat women like meat if we want, was the message.  And we did, and we do, seemingly endlessly.

Forty years later, Pamela Anderson submits to being symbolically carved up for butchering by PETA in order to metaphorically link meat and female bodies again.  But this time, in an ironic reversal, it’s designed to condemn the way we treat animals, not the way we treat women.

And, forty years later, feminists are still saying “Please, can we not do the women/meat thing?”

So Canada denies PETA a permit for the launching of this new ad campaign.  An official explains: “…it goes against all principles public organizations are fighting for in the everlasting battle of equality between men and women” (source).  What a nice thing to say, feminists think.

But Anderson fights feminism with feminism:

How sad that a woman would be banned from using her own body in a political protest over the suffering of cows and chickens… In some parts of the world, women are forced to cover their whole bodies with burqas—is that next?

Yes, Pamela, I’m sure that’s next.

But I digress.

So PETA and Anderson must think that Canadians super-super-respect women like totally and never-never-objectify them to the degree that saying that animals are like women will suddenly inspire horror at the prospect of using animals for food?  Or is it that they think men will see the image and be like “oooh I’d really like to rub up against that rump” and then suddenly find cows too sexy to eat?  Or they don’t give a shit about women and are willing to use whatever attention-getting tactic they can to save animals from going under the knife (including using the body of a woman that has, um, gone under the knife)?

I submit this for discussion because I just don’t know.

More from PETA: women packaged like meat, and in cages, women who love animals get naked (men wear clothes), the banned superbowl ad, and a collection of various PETA advertising using (mostly women’s) nudity. See also my post on leftist balkanization, or the way that leftist social movements tend to undermine each other.

If you’re interested further, you may want to read Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Stephanie DeH., Cara McC., and our intern, Lauren McGuire, sent in this CPR certification campaign that embraces the idea that sex sells.  I initially added it to our post on using sex to sell unlikely things (e.g., organ donation and sea monkeys), but I changed my mind and decided it deserved its own discussion.

What was interesting to me about this example is the sexualization of the possibility of dying. The fact that a person might die is apparently not serious enough to make it unsexy.  It actually took me a minute to even notice the weirdness of sexualizing the risk of death.  After I noticed I thought “How crazy!”  But then I thought again: in a society that regularly sexualizes violence and murder, the sexualization of near-death is par for the course (which, of course, is why it didn’t strike me as particularly weird in the first place.

NSFW and possibly triggering, so images are after the jump: