The recent protest against the Protein World adverts is a wonderful example of how, even in this joke of a democracy, where apathy has an almost ruling majority and we run around drunk on caffeine and Twitter, a movement can still be born instantaneously from a strong public reaction. When our team at "Each Body's Ready" formed the hashtag and made the Facebook group, we had no idea there were other factions writing, meeting and organising at the same time. That realisation was quite wonderful and truly exciting.
Within the furore, Charlotte Baring's petition to have the adverts removed was absolutely essential in giving the movement some decent weight. As they mentioned on Have I Got News For You this week, you can't ignore 50,000 signatures.
But when I received her 'victory email' post, announcing that the adverts would be taken down, I realised Baring was actually assuming, and misrepresenting, the views of the signee. A quick consultation with the "Each Body's Ready" team made it clear that we, as a group, would like to clarify where we differ.
First off: describing the outcome as a 'victory'. This is exactly the black-and-white dichotomous language that businesses like Protein World love to court in the name of healthy competition. You see it in the reactionary insults and 'flexed bicep emoticons' used when tweeting offended consumers. It's all over the original question "Are You Beach Body Ready?" which calls to mind wartime propaganda with its emphatic capital letter design. And you can sense it all around us, harboured in this culture of shock-tactics-journalism and social media where multidimensional views are lost in a sea of 35 character vomits and catchy head lines. The loudest and often crassest voice always seems to steal the limelight and in this case I would proffer that shouting 'Victory!' was a naive attempt to steam roller a more complicated reality.
In fact, as many trolls loved to point out, there was no victory. I am not ashamed to admit this because we never set out to make an enemy - we set out to respond to 'the question posed in yellow' and in so doing join with Protein World in a public conversation. As a result, there were many things learned and many things discussed. The most positive point for me was that the public at large became aware of a discontented voice. Whether or not the wider world listened in detail, at least the adverts did not come and go without objection; thereby preventing the "beach body ready" meme from continuing on a steady trajectory towards accepted status quo. How this will affect the future of advertising and public media we don't know, but it will have an effect of some kind. Stooping to their level by using language that polarises people will not help that future.
Secondly, in Baring's email she anchors the petition to two offences: "sexism" [against women mostly] and "sexualised imagery in the media". This is a massive assumption and misrepresentation of the signee. Of course, due to the nature of an ad selling weight-loss tablets featuring a young skinny female model, these issues were present and important, but it shouldn't be overlooked that the discrimination in the advert went beyond gender. Certainly for Each Body's Readywe felt the 'beach body' meme was an offence to humanity at large: a capitalist encroachment on our right to have time off from consumer driven competitiveness.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most necessary reason for us writing this piece is the following statement:
"Sexualised images shouldn't be a normality, especially in such public places." Charlotte Baring
We do not agree with this statement. Removing sexual images from the public sphere is dangerously tantamount to suggesting a culture of censorship and from there an environment of sexual repression. As we well know from history, cultures that have tried to ignore, hide or remove sexuality from the public sphere have only proven to create more backward, more violent and darker societies than those that have celebrated it.
As the lovely Alan Moore points out:
"Sexually open and progressive cultures like Ancient Greece have given the West almost all of its civilising aspects where as sexually repressive cultures such as late Rome have given us the Dark Ages" (Alan Moore, 20,000 Years of Erotic Freedom p. 18)
It is not sexual images themselves that are dangerous. It is how they are made, intended, and the context in which they are created that makes all the difference. The topless plus-sized ladies of the Dove adverts are partially nude and titillating as well as a symbol of liberation and forward-thinking, for example. Though, as Russel Brand put it in his last podcast 'Sex Mad' - "The commercial undertone is corrupting" - those ads have managed to be inclusive and empowering rather than depending on fear tactics. Even submissive housewife porn, if I have to use a particular example, is only negative if that is the only depiction of women in common circulation - resulting in a limited expectation of women as a whole. Widening the point again, you certainly don't avert the eyes of your daughter from a statue by Rodin in the British Museum because a naked couple are shown in flagrante - its art darling!
So, although I am glad, as well as Baring is, that the campaign has brought "the issue of sexism in advertising onto national press," I also hope, by writing this piece, that the bigger picture is not forgotten. Though many supported and reported the protest, many also waved us off, suggesting contemptuously that we fight for something with more obvious pulling power. But I will say again: this issue was absolutely everyone's concern and it will continue to be. I predict that protecting our need for space away from the pressures of consumer culture will become more and more prescient in what is an increasingly cramped and competitive modern world. As for the beach? Sunsets and sand washed by gentle waves? Watch this dying space ;)