Fighting the Pornification of Christmas (and Almost Everything Else)

Lynne Murray says:

Collective Shout is a small group of activists in Australia who got together about a year ago aiming to:

…name, shame and expose corporations, advertisers, marketers and media engaging in practices which are offensive and harmful especially to women and girls, but also to men and boys. Collective Shout is for anyone concerned about the increasing pornification of culture and the way its messages have become entrenched in mainstream society, presenting distorted and dishonest ideas about women and girls, sexuality and relationships.

Collective Shout’s latest target is the pornification of Christmas. Advertising has increasingly tried to grab customers by the lapels and in the last decade or so it has aimed with more and more precision at both stimulating and raising anxiety around sexuality.

Another Australian commenter, Steve Kryger, points out that the MTV videos he sees during workouts at the gym amount to soft core pornography

Sex has been so shamelessly and thoroughly grafted into video clips, that it’s hard to find a clip without highly sexualized imagery.… “It’s just video clips”, I hear you say. But for me, this is just the straw that’s broken the weary camel’s back. I’m sick of turning to the left and to the right and at every turn to be confronted with the same depiction of women – they are sexual playthings, who exist to live out my fantasies and satisfy my desires. Women need to be given far more respect, and men need to stop being manipulated. Our sexuality is far too precious to be treated with such widespread contempt.

As Collective Shout points out, unrealistic body images and videos framing sexuality as a predatory activity do genuine damage. Anyone who watches can be influenced, but the most vulnerable viewers, young girls and boys, absorb the distorted messages with few real world experiences to contradict them. Along with the products, viewers learn to buy into a damaging model of human behavior that guarantees them body anxiety, unrealistic social expectations and, oh yeah, a miserable sex life.

If consumers swallow this distorted presentation of reality without protest, the advertisers will have succeeded in grooming another generation of anxious buyers, stimulated by toxic fantasies that only find release in hapless spending.

It’s been a successful year for Collective Shout, gaining 2,000 supporters and joining forces with other groups to expose, for example, the way Unilever Corporation goes after the “empowering women” market with their Dove “real beauty” campaign and simultaneously goes after the “women as sexy prey” market with their commercials for Lynx, known in the US as Axe, a men’s deodorant. (Body Impolitic has been writing about the Campaign for Real Beauty for many years: a couple of key posts are here and here.

Collective Shout counts among their successes

• “Getting Bonds to withdraw bras for 6-year-old girls
• Getting supermarket chain Woolworths to disassociate itself with a sexist Lynx promotion
• Getting Calvin Klein billboards suggestive of sexual assault removed

We’ve reminded companies of the importance of corporate social responsibility. We have put them on notice that if they do the wrong thing, they will be exposed and boycotted. The bodies of women and girls should not be seen as fodder for companies to exploit for profit. We’ve had great media coverage. Just this month, we’ve appeared in everything from Harper’s Bazaar to the Tumbarumba Times.

Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” was paired with the company’s charitable sponsorship of self-esteem programs through the Girl Scouts,, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and Girls Inc.

Some people see a a moral dilemma because Unilever’s Dove “healthy self image for girls and women” campaign is contradicted by its Lynx/Axe “hunt those bikini-clad wenches through the jungle” ad campaign. But we live in the real world and charitable sponsorships come and go. Personally, I think the Girl Scouts, etc. should take the money while it’s offered (which is unlikely to be forever, since charitable campaigns are regularly rotated by large corporations) and keep their eyes open.

Speaking of partnerships, I’m encouraged by the way that Collective Shout has joined forces with other organizations such as the Women’s Media Center:

5 thoughts on “Fighting the Pornification of Christmas (and Almost Everything Else)

  1. While I abhor the sexism in these ads, I feel very strongly that the problem is the sexism not the sex.

    “Our sexuality is far too precious to be treated with such widespread contempt.”

    This quote makes me extremely nervous. It rings of the “sex is a special special thing that must be allowed only in the context of heterosexual marriage” line of argument. The same line of argument that is used to repress people’s (especially women’s) sexuality.

    I can think of many many problematic sexist images that I would like removed from the public sphere. Very few of those images are overtly sexual. How about we get rid of all the problematic material rather than focusing on the things we can impact by efforts that smell an awful lot like slut-shaming?

    I am glad that people are making an effort to impact the sexist messages that children are exposed to, but I am always afraid that if they succeed, their next target will be me rather than something like Disney Princess movies.

  2. Thanks for talking about the Dove campaign. I have thought it quite hypocritical and always marveled at the way the ads featuring these “real” women focus on women who fit into the socially accepted standard of beauty, which is a ridiculous standard most normal people will never meet. Nobody I know looks like the “real” women in those ads.

  3. The mention of music videos being pretty much soft-core porn rang true with me; I reluctantly quit my gym, part of a chain, because every place that I could go run on an elliptical trainer I had to do it in front of televisions showing videos of near-naked women and clothed men. When women were wearing clothing, it was heavily fetish-oriented. Many of the costumes turned women (seldom men) into things barely recognisable as human.

    I’m actively in favour of consensually-made fetish porn being available, both the kinds I like and the kinds I don’t like. However, the kind of alienated sexuality, with its disconnection from sensation and human connection, that is portrayed in music videos is not my sexuality, and even if it were I wouldn’t want to see it at the gym.

    I found that while I was making my body feel fantastic I would still leave feeling sour and unpleasant because of the highly sexually-charged images that have little to do with actual sexuality as I’ve experienced it. I have not found a way to get around this, since these images are now in the mainstream. I still yearn to do this kind of workout, but I can’t stand the music videos. When I asked for a no-television area, I was told that I could listen to headphones and didn’t have to watch. I already tried that, and I end up seeing this stuff anyway.

  4. I hear your concerns, Marlene. I think it’s a constant concern on issues such as the inappropriate sexualization of children where a broad spectrum of people can agree, and yet not agree on other issues. I think it can be a good thing to collaborate on important issues, sometimes even with people whom I’ll never agree with on anything else. But it’s always wise to be cautious. If they start behaving badly, it’s time to call them on it and if appropriate to bail.

    Your comment reminded me of a harrowing incident of entrapment described at the very beginning of Laura Kipnis’s thoughtful book “Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America” wherein law enforcement officers tried to persuade a man found in an online chat to get together face to face and collaborate in planning a child snuff film. The poor guy had no pedophile history and seemed to be participating in a fantasy with the prospect of getting laid. He never quite agreed to plan a crime, but his S&M lifestyle was enough to send him to prison when presented to a jury.

    Jennifer, I agree about the Dove campaign, although I still think the Girl Scouts, Boys & Girls Clubs and Girls, Inc. should take the “self-esteem project” money and not look back! Maybe some small seeds of self-esteem might be planted, although the parent corporation’s bad behavior might still keep them on my own “do not buy” list.

    Wow, Jill, that’s so sad that the gym can’t make a “safe from soft porn videos” space where people who want to opt out can exercise in peace!

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