In Is Everyone Really Equal? Sensoy and DiAngelo identify sexism as a form of oppression that is particularly difficult to see partially because of the effects of socialization, institutions, and culture. One example for one of the ways in which sexism is both visible and invisible in our culture is the tendency of advertisers to use feminine sexuality to “sell” products, ideas, and experiences. Sexuality in advertising is the topic of the series of videos by Jean Kilbourne called Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. Kilbourne discusses how the use of advertising that objectifies women to sell products is so ubiquitous; we’ve nearly become desensitized to its effects.
As microcosms of larger society, campuses are not immune to these cultural messages. And, those who design and implement campus programming can unknowingly replicate these same tactics in advertising campus events. I argue in this post that our awareness and then action (or activism) can be important tools in counteracting the pervasiveness of sexist advertising.
In this post, I will share a personal case as an example of the (in)visible sexism on campus and explore how we, as feminists in student affairs, might disrupt sexist advertising within our spheres of influence. The example, which I’m about to share, is not meant to shame individuals who were involved. Some who read this will know far more details about this particular situation. Instead my aim is provide a case study to explore the conflicts that arise when one takes a position against sexism and what we might do collectively going forward. I’ll be honest, writing about this has been hard. It’s been years since these events took place, and I’m still affected by what unfolded among professionals in student affairs who are generally aware of the harmful effects of sexism in society. Yet, they proceeded to use female sexuality to “sell”/advertise a public lecture. Perhaps this post will help us process and unpack it further.
Here’s the backstory: In my previous student affairs role prior to coming back to school for my PhD, I worked in a campus-based women’s center (WC). Each year, the professional staff of the WC, the LGBTQA office, the multicultural affairs office, and several student members of the campus entertainment board partnered to bring awareness-raising programming to the campus for World AIDS Day. About two years into my tenure, planning for the upcoming year’s World AIDS Day event proceeded and it was determined (without some of us present) that the committee would bring HIV+ former Playboy Playmate Rebekka Armstrong to speak. On principle, those of us in the WC were concerned with this decision because of the endorsement of “sexuality-as-(male)entertainment-as-education” message. And, given our mission to educate on gender equity issues, we were concerned about the conflicting messages our office’s involvement would send to the campus community. Consequently, we made a decision to back out of co-sponsoring the event. The event was not cancelled.
Later, when event advertising went up around campus (including large ads printed in the campus paper) additional serious concerns arose. All of the ads use an image of a nude Armstrong receiving an IV (see the image on her speaking agency’s page). The image was printed on a 24X36” poster board and displayed on an easel in the main commons by a popular coffee shop. Researchers have shown that the presence of both subtle and overt sexism negatively affects the climate towards women. Members of the WC staff asked for the poster to be changed and for a different image to be used (we pointed the many other images on the speaker’s website). Unfortunately, our concerns were not taken seriously and we didn’t get a response from the other committee members to our request to meet and discuss it (we were, after all, no longer a part of the planning process). Our concerns were pretty much ignored. While the image itself was harmful, the personally hurtful part of the experience for many of us was the disregard and diminishment of our concerns as legitimate. In a meeting with an administrator on campus, I was asked, “How big of a deal do you want to make this?” Clearly, he didn’t think it was a big deal.
The memory of these events was triggered for me this semester after watching Stuart Hall’s documentary Representation and the Media as a part of a class assignment in my doctoral program. I was struck by how Hall framed the power of an image to convey meaning. Further, meaning is only conveyed and understood if there is discourse. Indeed, discourse creates reality. Reflecting on the situation described above, I wondered if, by making it a “big deal,” we extended dialogue and created further meaning. Further, Hall also talks about how power intervenes in interpretation. In this situation, the staff of the women’s center (and faculty who are experts in the scholarly literature around feminism and sexism) seemed to have little power or credibility. Whereas another woman on the event’s planning committee shared that she didn’t have a problem with the image. As we were reminded of her lack of concern on several occasions, the power and credibility of our concern was undermined.
Later that week, stickers that read “This Insults Women” were plastered on the poster. This activism was later identified as “vandalism” in an article in the student newspaper, reducing the power and authority of the counterpoint the act represented. Apparently activism can be reframed as vandalism… and vandalism can be positioned as more serious (I’m totally being sarcastic here) to sexism and exploitation and using sexuality to convince (largely a white, male, heterosexual) audience to attend a lecture by a former playboy playmate.
In the end, I attended the lecture and was mildly impressed with Ms. Armstrong and her message. She was generally an effective speaker and she didn’t need to use sexuality to sell her talk. Yet, undeniable was the evidence that the sexist advertising worked. The ballroom was nearly full. I can only assume (given the abysmal attendance at previous year’s events) that the audience showed up to hear an educational message about HIV/AIDS primarily because of the speaker’s former playboy affiliation and the controversy surrounding the event’s advertising. Does sexist images in advertising help to sell products (or in this case an “educational lecture”)? Of course. Is it that okay? No.
And so, today I remain deeply affected by the series of events that unfolded several years ago. Sexist advertising was used in a harmful way in the name of education… and, not surprisingly, it worked. Most concerning for me was the hurt caused through the process and the dismissal of our concerns. Further, while our perspective was not shared by some women, the harm of sexism in society is undeniable. And, in this case, sexism seemed so present, and so visible.
After all, sexism doesn’t just insult women, it insults all of us. We all benefit by dismantling sexism, racism, heterosexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, genderism, etc… whenever and wherever it exists.
So, I leave you with this question … how can we as student affairs feminists, on campuses across the country that are in turmoil, open spaces for people to voice their truths in a manner that is recognized as credible and powerful—not perceived as dismissive—and inviting of discourse that is critical to understanding and catalyzing change? Perhaps even posing this question is the first step toward achieving progress.
Jhally, S. (1997). Stuart Hall: Representation and the media. Media Education Foundation.
Sensoy, Ö., & DiAngelo, R. (2012). Is everyone really equal?: An introduction to key concepts in social justice education. Teachers College Press.