Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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Lessons in feminist activism, from someone who has been on both sides.

This post was republished and edited for the Bitch/Feminist Portrait Project Blog Carnival, in which feminist bloggers write about their ‘click’ moments. Click here (no pun intended) to read the others.

Let me tell you the story of how I met one of my closest friends.

I had just turned 20, and had recently been appointed a co-editor of my university’s student magazine. It was our third issue for the year, and I was the coordinating/commissioning editor. Being very much on my writer/editor training wheels back then, I can’t say it was some bastion of creative perfection, but it contained some interesting, thought-provoking articles on gender and culture, including an art history-inspired feature about ‘queering the male gaze’ and a sociological perspective on the high incidence of self-injury amongst young women.

It also featured a headless woman on the cover. Or more precisely, a waif-like white woman’s torso, wearing a purple, 1950s-style bikini.

We’d been using a lot of 1950s-style images in our magazine that year, and the image had grabbed me as being dreamy, ethereal and kind of sad. It perfectly captured, I thought, the theme of the issue: ‘Through the looking glass’.

To the women’s collective at my university, it was a headless woman. Nothing more. And within a day or two of its release, the campus was covered in big orange posters about how the editors of the magazine I was working on published ‘sexist crap’. The magazines themselves were plastered with orange stickers making the same claim. The editors of the rival campus publication took particular delight in the scandal, running a double page spread about how horrible we were, accompanied by a (comparatively brief) 400-word letter to the editor from me.

I’m pretty sure I cried. I definitely swore. And I definitely covered that double page spread with angry, pencilled retorts, as I read it in one of my lectures.

I felt like I was being mischaracterised. That no one had asked me – or any of the other editors, for that matter – what we had intended by the image. They had just assumed the worst and launched a full-scale campaign against us.

What made the whole thing worse, from my perspective, was that by 20 I was well and truly a feminist. A bottle-blonde, Elle Woods style feminist with a penchant for pink, perhaps, but very definitely a feminist nonetheless. I was a gender studies major. I read Naomi Wolf, Germaine Greer and Bust. The entire point of this particular edition of the magazine had been to draw attention to gender matters. From an academic perspective, I was very much aware of why headless women were problematic, but it wasn’t something that crossed my mind when I was actually putting the issue together.

I was wrong, of course. It should have crossed my mind. If there’s one thing I learned from that experience, it’s that if anything you put out there can be read negatively, someone will. But more to the point, “reappropriated” or not (as I argued we were in my letter to the rival publication’s editors), images like the one I put out there do fit into a broader tradition of images dehumanising and – more to the point, although I don’t think anyone actually touched on this during the magazine scandal – glamorising violence against women. They might seem innocuous because they’re so ingrained in our collective cultural memory, but by repeating them, we only normalise them further.

It was a “click moment”, in more ways than one.

I bring this story up because yesterday I was asked to comment on a new campaign by Melinda Tankard Reist and Collective Shout in response the latest catalogue for “wholesome” clothing retailer, Rivers. The catalogue features a woman’s legs, in heels and suspenders, sticking out under a sofa with the accompanying text, “deadly deals”. Tankard Reist says the image is “eroticising violence against women”, and that it fits into a broader trend of using erotic/violent imagery to attract attention (think Kanye’s ‘Monster’ video). She’s since written to Rivers, has filed a complaint with the Advertising Standards Board and is organising a boycut of their products.

One of the questions I was asked was if Collective Shout was “over-reacting”. It’s a tricky one. In the interview, I said ‘no’. Like my student magazine cover, I think the image falls into a gray area - not everyone who sees it is going to find it offensive. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s in the least unreasonable to find it offensive. And if you do find images like the Rivers one offensive, you should certainly act on it. Because if nobody says anything, how else are the people making the ads going to know?

It does raise another question, though: what is the best way to let people (and companies, which are staffed by people) know when you think that what they’re doing is a bit fucked up? As I said above, I think I did the wrong thing by putting a headless woman on the cover of my magazine, but I also think the women’s collective did the wrong thing by covering the campus with big orange posters.

It automatically positioned me and my co-editors as the enemy. And like I said, I didn’t respond particularly well. But I think I would have responded even worse to the campaign if I hadn’t already self-identified as a feminist. The fact that these people were ostensibly ‘like me’ in ideology made me more open to questioning my behaviour, but address that kind of campaign to a non-feminist? You’re only going to get them even more offside. Witness all the comments on The Age on Collective Shout campaign.

I’m fairly non-confrontational by nature, so whenever I’m trying to win an argument, I like to start on common ground. Treat people as if they’re well meaning and reasonable, and often they’ll rise to the occasion.

In the case of the advertising campaigns Collective Shout run, I think it’s fine - good, even - to shout about what you think is wrong. I’d also like to see more of a dialogue though because the people leading the campaigns and the advertising professionals they’re campaigning again. A media literacy type workshop about why these images ‘work’ (from an advertising perspective), why they’re problematic (from a feminist perspective), and what can and should be done to change them.

Which brings me back to the story of how I met my friend. One of the members of the campus women’s collective did end up coming by our office to talk to us about the cover image. I happily let her in, and we debated it for an hour. We didn’t agree on everything, but we did have a pretty stimulating discussion - and at the end of it, as I showed her out, I said: “Wouldn’t it be funny if we became friends out of this?”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Related: Whitewashing women’s magazines: racism or just bad photoshop?
Reading about ‘it’ girls makes me feel like a shit girl
"We’re all bad feminists, really"

Elsewhere: Rivers ad campaign a ‘deadly deal for women’ (The Age)
Rivers eroticisation of violence a deadly deal for women (Collective Shout)