A coalition of women’s groups — the exact name, we confess, escapes us at the moment – recently released to the media their rankings of the “most sexist” advertisements of 2003. (The august Wall Street Journal used the story as an opportunity to print a still photo of a half-naked woman shilling some cleaning product.) The group’s spokesperson made the usual impassioned noises about how such puerile ads were setting back women’s rights, etc. – and before the din could die down, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, and Glamour went about their business of preying on female insecurity, churning out articles on how to be trimmer, sexier, better.
The “most sexist” ad of last year, according to the aggrieved women’s coalition, featured Pamela Anderson, clad in a cut-off tee shirt and Daisy Duke shorts, buffing an automobile with her much-downloaded body. The car looked very shiny.
At the risk of splitting rhetorical hairs, it seems to me that this silly image, featuring a transcendentally silly person, isn’t sexist at all. Sexy, maybe (particularly to those who go in for the surgically enhanced Barbie doll look). But sexist?
Racist: Someone who discriminates on the basis of race. Ageist: Someone who discriminates on the basis of age. Sexist: Someone who discriminates on the basis of sex.
It’s sexist to pay an equally qualified woman less than a man (or not hire her at all because she has a uterus.) It’s sexist to deny someone the right to vote because she has breasts. It’s sexist to refuse a woman the priesthood.
Employing a woman in an advertisement that celebrates – or exploits, depending on your politics — her physical charms, isn’t sexist. It’s canny marketing. Now, outraged ideologues point at images of a slithering Pam Anderson (or Britney Spears shaking her tits; or Jenna Jameson spreading her ass) and bemoan the cruelty of a society that would force such humiliations upon innocent lasses. “What a sexist culture we live in!” they decry. “How awful that women must prostitute themselves to make a living.”
But it’s not just women who suffer such indignities. Don’t most people – and that includes the half of our population that has a penis – prostitute themselves to make a living? We all know a corporate slave who earns a good wage but seethes inside at the daily humiliations he must endure at the hands of dim-witted bosses. Clay Aiken, last year’s American Idol runner-up, has a spectacular voice that he could use in service of the world’s loveliest music; instead, he prostitutes himself to sell a debut album filled with awful pop songs not worthy of his talent. Mark Wahlberg could have been doing Hamlet in Central Park; instead, he used his delicious figure to sell underwear. (And when was the last time you heard a woman refer to a Calvin Klein ad featuring a beautifully muscled Adonis as “sexist”?)
Beer, car care products, women’s magazines – they all use sex to move the merchandise. The only thing truly sexist about this state of affairs is our society’s unwillingness to throw advertising money at middle-aged, out-of-shape, unattractive males. When men, and only men, get all the best swimsuit modeling jobs, sexism will have vanquished fairness. Until then — and how we pray we never live to see that day – women who have got both the looks and the mercenary impulse will have the opportunity to sell their pretty bodies for money.
No matter how many alleged feminist groups condemn this commercial freedom, the art directors at People, Elle, and In Style, we assure you, remain profoundly grateful for such pernicious “sexism.”