Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Of Intent and 'isms'

I've been watching a rather interesting flame war unfurl on Feministe right now, in regards to a seemingly innocuous ad from Dove, depicting three women under two frames showing dry crackily skin as before, and a frame of smooth-appearing skin as the after.

The interesting note is how the women are arranged under the before and after frame.  We go from a plus-sized woman of color (directly under the 'Before' sign), to a fairly average, "racially-ambiguous" woman in the middle, to a thin white woman (directly under the 'After' sign).

Click to enlarge - Source
Now, myself, I wouldn't have picked up on this had it not been pointed out to me, but I will admit it does look a smidge like the women in the picture are suppose to represent the 'Before' and 'After', in which case, that's a pretty racist AND size-ist image to be putting out there, what with the played out ideas of light=desirable as well as thin=desirable.  Have we not moved beyond this, people?

Two of the common defences for this ad that are popping up are the "I don't see how this is racist" defence and the "I don't think Dove intended it to be offensive" defence.

Two of the commenters on the thread, one an admittedly thin, white woman, made the "I don't see how this is racist," argument, which would have been fine in my humble opinion (because, hey, not everyone is going to read it the same way) had they not decided to suffix this statement by going on about how people, and especially POC, are oversensitive and looking for problematic issues where none exist.

One of the commenters took to her own blog with a diatribe about her hurt feelers, without seeming to get that while it's totally okay to not see the same imagery (like I said, I probably wouldn't have seen it if wasn't pointed out to me) making statements that basically dismiss the concerns of those who DO see a problem with it, especially those who may belong to said marginalized groups, and THEN have a hissy because people aren't respecting that your opinion is your opinion... well, there's just nothing cool about that at all.  It's the debate equivalent of smacking someone and then saying "What? That didn't hurt! Quit being a suckhole!" and then getting pissed off when they smack you back.

The second common defence for the Dove ad is the "They probably didn't mean it that way, so why are we getting all up in arms about it?"

Because, my lovelies, unintentional messages and images that serve to marginalize underprivileged groups are still messages and images that serve to marginalize underprivileged groups and as such, we should do what we can to examine and be critical of such images, and not just give them a pass because maybe they didn't mean it that way.

No, maybe they didn't mean it that way, although it's hard to imagine that with a company the size of Unilever that SOMEONE on the marketing department wouldn't have picked up on this and gone "Uh, hey guys? About that?"  But unintentional messages can perpetuate ideas and stereotypes just as well as intentional messages, and in some cases can be more damaging when you consider the tendency to give people a pass due to ignorance.

In the thread there was a debate about the similarity of the situation to an episode of South Park, but I think a more apt comparison is the scene in Clerks 2 where Randal uses the word 'Porchmonkey'  while ignorant of it's problematic history (Trigger warning on the vid for racial slurs.  A lot of them - p.s. I'm not the author of the video, so that's not my captioning at the beginning).  The incomparable Wanda Sykes plays a customer who takes great offense to this and is just about ready to jump the counter on him.  Blinded by his privilege Randal insists that it's not racist, and continues to offend those around him with his insistence on using the term.  Wanda Sykes' character is offended, not because she's oversensitive, but because Randal, while not an inherently bad person, is an idiot.  Not for using the word porchmonkey, but for dismissing others' experiences with the term, based on his own privileged experience and CONTINUING to use it after having the negative connotations explained to him.

When a small child says or does something inappropriate that hurts others, we (hopefully.. as a parent I try to) point out what they've said or done and why it's hurtful.  Clearly the child doesn't know they're being hurtful, so we correct them so they avoid this behaviour in the future.

Why is it unacceptable to do the same with adults, or large corporations, or the media?  When a message is unintentional, that is ALL THE MORE reason to call it out and let those put the message forth that "Hey, yeah, not okay."

And pointing out the behaviour, and why it's hurtful.  Like we do with small children.  This goes for any 'ism' that one may come across, be it racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and so forth.

The test for Dove and Unilever now will be their response.  So far it's been a resounding "Did Not!" which is basically what we've been talking about here.  A dismissal, when a more PR-friendly response may have been  an acknowledgement of the public's concerns, an apology for inadvertently upsetting people, and then pull or alter the ad.

It's a better move to go "Uhm.. wow.  Didn't pick up on that. Let's fix that." than to be the kid going "Nuh-uh! I never did!"  The latter option ends up acting as a big 'Fuck You' to all the people who did feel the ad was questionable and felt marginalized as a result.


  1. here's a new take. being as people read english from left to right, the eye has a tendency to scan in that direction. that puts the plus sized woman of colour in a promanent position being as she would be viewed first. Same goes with the "before" and "after". you wouldn't put the "after" in a position to be viewed first. personally i think this is a case of some one seeing an issue where none exsist or was intentioned

    middle aged white guy
    Chris Grosvenor

  2. No, you wouldn't put the after in a position previous the after.. but the women could easily be placed in a different order.

    My point wasn't so much a 'is it or isn't it' but more so whether it's fair to dismiss someone as being overly sensitive for seeing something when may be more apt to be subjected to it.

  3. Oh yeah, it's obvious that this ad is the finished product of groupthink.

  4. Well.. I would guess that the response should've been.. and will eventually be, "uhm.. yah. right. so sorry. thanks for pointing that out."
    Sure.. we can be sensitive, but it is a good point.

    Dove has their Self-Esteem Fund which I've recently saw advertised... so one would think that they'd be very wise? with what they put out there..

  5. I think people who've historically been oppressed continue to feel that way even in situations where they may not be. Just like people who haven't been oppressed would continue to feel that it's not really a problem since they've never experienced it. We are creatures of habit you know...

  6. I'm reminded of that Microsoft ad from a few years ago. The US version had a black man in it, but the [European Country]'s ad replaced the black man's head with a white man's head. Except his hand was still black. All kinds of controversy ensued.


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