When I take a step back and look at my life, I have to inevitably realise that my gender has never been much of an obstacle. I cannot remember a single instance in which I was told I could not do something because I was a girl. And sure, I am aware of sexual violence which is directed mostly towards women. And yes, I am familiar with the terms ‘second shift’, ‘gender pay gap’ and glass ceiling. But I always – naively – assumed that most people in the society I live in share my principles of gender equality. A recent incident however made me realise that, firstly, I live in a social bubble. And secondly, while we have undoubtedly taken great steps forward, feminism is a matter as urgent as ever.
The Butt Incident
The incident I am referring to is the following: I was sitting at home, brooding over my minor thesis when I received a message from Ellen Wagner, a friend of mine. She asked me to read through a letter of complaint she had written because of a job advertisement in her town’s local newspaper. In their ad the company stated that they were looking for a plumbing and heating installer. The job description was accompanied by the image of a woman’s bottom in hot pants and holding tools in her hands.
Since the German advertisement council states: ‘Most of all statements or depictions may therefore not be used in commercial advertisement which, 1. discriminate a person on the basis of their gender […] 5. reduce to their sexuality or suggest their sexual availability’ and furthermore the advertisement council emphasises the consideration ‘whether there is a socially acceptable, non-discriminatory or degrading connection between the depiction of the human body and product/ service’, Ellen decided to write a letter of complaint, and has now agreed to an interview with Pike & Hurricane.
P&H: What was your initial reaction when you saw the advertisement in your local newspaper?
Ellen: It took me some time to realise what was actually displayed, and why. When I first saw the ad, my subconscious mind probably instantly categorised it as distasteful, not worthy of any attention. But then, a few seconds later, as soon as I caught myself just reading over it, ignoring it, I got alarmed, and I still am. So really, I had to look twice before being able to reflect on it, which really shocked me. I started asking myself, how come my subconscious mind is so indifferent to seeing women’s bodies selling stuff? Has “Sex sells” become naturalised up to a point where we find it legitimate, and we relativise it by claiming it to be a matter of taste and aesthetics, something entirely subjective?
P&H: What reaction to your letter of complaint were you (predominantly) expecting, and what happened in reality?
Ellen: I sent my letter of complaint both to the company commissioning the ad, as well as to the responsible newspaper that chose to print it. I sent it just wanting to do something about it, not even expecting much of a response from them. I was surprised to find support from the mayor who responded to the letter the same day with a very positive message of support. Another interesting part is that I decided to also share it in one of our local facebook groups, to encourage other people to become active, too. I was aware that the same topic had been thoroughly debated a few days earlier within that group, with many people making some meant-to-be-funny comments about women’s butts, not seeming to understand the problem addressed. I guess at that point, I didn’t take it seriously enough. To me, it looked like they were few, maybe because I didn’t find any convincing arguments in their comments which made my brain just skip this whole debate. For my own post, I used the “disable commenting” function because I didn’t want to have to read the same angry ranting and raving again. I explicitly addressed those people interested in becoming active, those wanting to make a change. When I think about it now, I expected at least half of the people to share my concerns about this particular ad, and maybe even some of them to show interest in becoming active in criticising the ad industry. But that impression changed rapidly after I published the post, and I slowly realised that my expectation of a 50:50 distribution would actually rather turn into a 70:30 ratio, dominated by an angry virtual mob.
The Angry Virtual Mob
The comments of this ‘angry virtual mob’ included remarks as to how ‘[w]hat this woman has written is hard to surpass in ridiculousness’, that ‘she can very well wear a burka during summer’ and ‘must be really bored’, as well as assumptions about the body hair of women criticising this type of advertisement. I imagined this to be the result of the (stereo)typical ‘fragile male ego’ but to my surprise – and utter horror – a considerable amount of the comments showing incomprehension for Ellen’s open criticism of this clearly objectifying and over-sexualised advertisement were posted by women.
P&H: Do you see the issue of or need for feminism differently now in comparison to before the incident?
Ellen: After this incident, I see it as especially urgent to reach out beyond our own, comfortable bubbles. When I think about it now, it’s no surprise that I completely underestimated the negative reactions – because most of the time, I am surrounded by people who share my perspective on many issues. That’s why I think we should never jump to the conclusion that the fight for justice – including feminism – isn’t topical anymore. If we only get out of your bubble, we’ll witness how different other people’s realities are from ours. And then, really, it is just about confronting others with the problems we see. Despite all the negative reactions I am receiving at the moment, I do hope that the anger of the mob turned into food for thought for them. If only few of them start reflecting on the problem, this whole initiative was so worth it. Spreading this personal experience with as many people as possible will definitely be one of my goals in 2019, just to make people aware of how we are taking for granted what we had to fight for throughout history.
P&H: Do you have any explanation for the overwhelmingly negative reactions you received?
Ellen: Of course, the scene where all of this happened was quite a rural area, a small town in Bavaria, where people tend to think less critically about politics and how their lives relate to it. People live in their cozy little worlds – of course they feel under attack if somebody comes and turns it around. And once they saw their conceptual world endangered, I think it was mostly the feeling of anonymity online that encouraged people to join the mob and to start making discriminatory remarks. The barrier is lower online than it is in real life, and people enjoy the kind of anarchy they feel to be given in social networks. Though I have to mention that facebook deleted approximately ten comments because they were considered either hate speech or sexual harassment – so it might not be as anarchical after all…
P&H: What changes in society regarding women/ changes in the debates about women’s/ feminist issues would you like to see?
Ellen: Not seeing feminism as a “women only” club, but as an inclusive movement, driven by empathy and togetherness. In the end, for me, it all goes back to the question of how we want to live together on this planet.
by Merle Emrich
Job advertisement published in Blickpunkt Pegnitz (Nordbayerischer Kurier), Dez 7, 2018
Facebook Screenshots, Merle Emrich & Ellen Wagner
Slutwalk Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne, 04.06.11, Ben Ponton, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0