News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

June 27, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: 21st century feminism: Lose the airbrush and prepare to laugh

TERRE HAUTE — I hate to tell all those back-to-the-1950s folks, but the feminist movement is not only alive, but also it’s populated with some very bright, funny women.

Take Sarah Haskins, the creative force behind — and in front of — “Target Women” on Current TV’s “InfoMania.” I spent two hours on the Internet the other day watching Haskins’ sendups of advertising and other media messages that are pitched at women to make them (a) feel inadequate and (b) offer them salvation through buying stuff.

As Haskins says in a segment that makes fun of a Reeboks commercial in which a woman’s breasts are jealous of her well-toned butt, “When you’re a woman, happiness is just one purchase away!”

Whether it is “Beauty Contraptions” or “Doofy Husbands,” Haskins homes in on the sexist, intelligence-insulting absurdities that are as fundamental to most female-aimed marketing as underwire and foam are to Victoria’s Secret. And in her deadpan delivery, she makes her points with a “Daily Show” kind of humor that inspires loud, spit-out-your-milk laughter.  

One segment on commercials for home security systems — “I call them ‘rape fables,’” Haskins chirps — exposes the ridiculous logic of a shrieking alarm deterring a psychopathic killer long enough for “the hunks” at the security company to be alerted, to call the invaded home, reach the terrified lone female, confirm a crisis situation then announce, “I’m sending help now.”

Another video on the “European” engineering behind such devices as vibrating mascara wands, climaxes with Haskins streaking half her face black with a runaway applicator.

Haskins is only 30, but she can recognize a stupid, sexist pitch as well as any veteran of my era of feminists. I discovered her on a website recommended by a friend who is part of a current wave of young feminist artists, writers and political activists.

The site belongs to About-Face, an organization that is directed by Jennifer Berger, a University of Michigan grad who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. About-Face’s mission is “to equip women and girls with tools to understand and resist harmful media messages that affect self-esteem and body image.” The group’s motto: “Don’t fall for the media circus.”

Berger’s modus operandi isn’t flat-out comedy like Haskins’, it is sarcasm, consciousness raising and activism that encourages girls and women to do something besides seethe. One productive channel for activism is About-Face’s Gallery of Offenders. Each offensive media example includes contact information for the president or CEO of the guilty company. Conversely, a list of “winners” offers About-Face visitors the easiest way to register kudos and thanks with executives whose ads and messages promote a healthy, realistic image of females.

Examples of both offenders and winners usually include study questions to help girls and teenagers discern what is wrong or right with each message.

A current offender in the gallery is a Carl’s Jr. ad for its Teriyaki Burger. It stars a TV actress, Audrina Patridge, who sports the typical “ideal” female body — large, very round breasts and skinny everything else — lolling on a beach in a tiny bikini. Despite insisting she must “give up, like, everything” to “look hot in a bikini,” Patridge snarfs up a huge Teriyaki Burger because “I have to be a little bad.”

In addition to the usual woman-as-sex-object theme — “The Teriyaki Burger. Not just another piece of meat.” — it’s worth noting that the burger delivers 52 percent of an adult’s daily allowance of fat (55 percent of the saturated kind), 27 percent of cholesterol and 45 percent of sodium. More than a little bad for Audrina.

Another offender is an ad for Axe body washes for men, one of which is to be used to “scrub away the skank” after a night of drunken sex.

Yet another is an article from AskMen.com that provides guys with 10 “subtle ways to tell her” — a wife or girlfriend — “she’s getting fat.” One of the so-called subtle ways? “Sabotage her chair.”

Really. The tip advises a man to remove screws or loosen slats from his woman’s chair so it will crash to the floor and he can “shame her into acknowledgment of her recent weight gain.”

Guidance like that makes me want to sabotage such a man’s family jewels with a Brillo Pad.

In the winners category are image-healthy ads and messages that celebrate the un-nipped, implant-void, Botox-less female face and form. A fine example by the Body Shop features a drawing of a plump, curvaceous, happy, naked woman on an old-fashioned divan. The ad reads: “The world contains 3 billion women who don’t look like super models and only 8 who do.”

Not long ago, Jennifer Berger and About-Face conducted a creative consciousness-raising action. Armed with static-cling decals — easily removed and leaving no glue behind — the young women and teens fanned out into clothing stores around San Francisco and placed this message on dressing room mirrors:

“YOU: Absolutely no Photoshopping necessary.”

In a recent interview with feminist writer Margot Magowan on Magowan’s ReelGirl blog, Berger — shown in a photo wearing a T-shirt that says, “Quit playing Barbie” — discussed some of her organization’s goals and challenges.

Of the latter, she told Magowan, “There’s awareness of media’s impact on girls’ and women’s sense of self-worth and some notable positive examples, but not enough action to really create change. And somehow most people seem to think that sexism is over. We can hear about celebrities who admit that they have had eating disorders, or that they feel pressure about their weight or appearance, but they aren’t going so far as encouraging an improvement of the system itself.”

Part of the process of changing the system, Berger said, is an attitude adjustment:

“Our message is to encourage girls and women to see themselves from the inside out, not from the outside in. That is, eat and exercise healthily because you have respect for yourself and your body, not because you want to get thin or avoid being fat.”

And especially not because you want to snag a guy who will turn out to be a Doofy Husband or, worse, a 24-karat jerk who would booby trap his woman’s chair to get her on a diet.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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