First published on Lipmag on 13 July 2013
I have to admit that sometimes the relentless one-dimensional portrayals of women in advertising and the media wear me down. I start to reach the point where I almost feel like I’m past caring; like it needs to be a very special kind of offensive for me to drum up any outrage. It’s not that I don’t see it anymore – I just have trouble understanding why this particular piece of sexist crap should be worth my time.
So it was with the recent Roxy ad. For those of you who might have missed the scandal, the ad is ostensibly for a women’s surfing competition, the Roxy Pro Biarritz 2013, of which Roxy is obviously a key sponsor. The “narrative”, if you can call it that, follows a nearly-naked girl (later revealed to be surfing champion Stephanie Gilmore), as she goes about her bizarre “pre-surf” routine, which seems to be as follows (please imagine all played out to a dizzy bubblegum dance track):
1. Wake up
2. Check texts on current hot smartphone
3. Pull on slinky white shirt
4. Check emails on current hot laptop
5. Take off slinky white shirt
6. Have shower
7. Head to beach
8. Wax board
During this, we never see her face. The camera is lovingly trained on her pert little butt for most of the ad. For a bit of variety, we see the shape of her naked torso through the white shirt, and then a nice shot of cleavage when she waxes the board. But mostly, ladies and gentlemen, it’s all about the arse. At the conclusion of all this tanned, toned, slow-motion, cheerful objectification, we watch the butt as it paddles out to sea, presumably to begin surfing.
Then the ad ends. We never see any actual surfing.
It’s worth mentioning that the ad was intended to drum up interest in who Roxy’s new “ambassador” was going to be – the hashtag at the end of the ad, a blatant and sad attempt to get “down with the kids”, was taken from a movie so old it needed a ’90s teenager like me to point it out. The call to action, #WhoAmIJustGuess, comes from the cheerleading rhyme in the opening minutes of that classic 2001 teen comedy Bring It On. If you’re interested, the next line in the rhyme is ‘Guys wanna touch my chest’. If you had any doubts as to whether Roxy were intentionally objectifying a female athlete, the hint’s right there.
OK, so the ad. Yes, it’s offensive. It’s sexist – men are rarely filmed reclining in their knickers, unless it’s an ad for underwear, and a clip for a male surfing competition would almost certainly show, you know, pictures of dudes surfing. It’s demeaning. It’s also incongruous – it’s an ad for a surfing competition that doesn’t feature any surfing. But it’s also ubiquitous. This kind of representation of women is so common that sometimes it feels insurmountable. What’s the point of getting mad about this when you know that next week there will be something else; another video clip from Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake, another ad, another movie, which will just go to show that no matter how much you fight it, this is the norm, and your voice is just a little chirp in the wilderness.
So when this Roxy ad came out, I read some of the commentary and I felt a bit relieved that there were other people who agreed that it was ludicrous and offensive. Then I went and did something else: I read Roxy’s response to the backlash.
And that’s when I got mad.
Roxy’s “apology”, published on their Facebook page, was as follows:
‘All athletes are naturally beautiful, in and out of the water. You certainly don’t have to be sexy to be an athlete, & we also believe it’s not wrong to be an athlete and to be sexy, if you choose to be. We don’t judge one to be better than the other & we don’t believe in excluding one for the other. Thank you for the passionate thoughts shared on the video, & for expressing how much you respect women in surfing.’
You see, now I’m mad.
Leaving aside the insipid statement, ‘All athletes are naturally beautiful’ (oh really? You chose Gilmore randomly, did you? Not specifically because she is thin, tanned, and blonde, with white teeth and long hair?), this is a churlish response. The problem is that the criticism of this video wasn’t that Stephanie Gilmore is sexy. Critics weren’t incensed that Roxy had the gall to depict an athlete as sexy when everyone knows athletes can’t be sexy. That’s not it at all. The criticism, to spell it out, was that this advertisement is supposed to be for a surfing competition, but it doesn’t show any surfing. The central message of the ad was that it is more important to be a formulaic, mainstream idea of sexy – in a surfing competition – than it is to be an excellent surfer.
Had this been an ad for underwear, its dehumanising portrayal of a woman as little more than a collection of body parts would have been irritating but, sadly, not uncommon. Lingerie exists to make women feel “sexy” and men feel important and sometimes the people writing ads are too lazy to come up with anything more imaginative than a paint-by-numbers idea of what constitutes “sexy”. Consequently, lots of ads for underwear feature semi-naked chicks without showing their faces.
Of course, if it were an ad for underwear, it would still be sexist. To paraphrase Caitlin Moran, if you’re unsure whether something is sexist, ask yourself the question: ‘Do the men have to put up with this shit?’ Ads aimed at men rarely show them as existing solely for titillation, even ads depicting male athletes selling underwear. The difference exists in what commentators call the “male gaze”. In short, the Bonds ads with Pat Rafter or the Armani ads with David Beckham show the men looking potent and powerful – the suggestion being that this is how the underwear will make its wearer feel. Lingerie ads aimed at women (with the possible exception of the “Stick ‘Em, Rex” Antz Pantz ads from the 1990s – oh I feel old now) are about women being looked at by men. The “promise,” as we say in the biz, is that if you wear this underwear, men will think you are sexy. It’s not about how it makes you feel yourself; it’s about receiving validation from being desired by others. Needless to say, non-heteronormative sexuality or deviation from the mainstream definition of sexy has no place here.
Roxy’s ad has the same tone. It is a narrow concept of sexy, where sexy is defined by the male gaze. The girl in the ad might feel sexy, or she might not – the ad doesn’t care how she feels because her sole purpose is to be looked at. This is reinforced by the fact that we never see her face and the close-up shots of various body parts. ‘Look!’ the camera says. ‘Look at how sexy she is.’ Her opinion on the matter is irrelevant.
Either Roxy is being deliberately obtuse in its response, or – and this seems more likely to me – they are trying to make it sound like the criticism came from a fringe group of bitter feminists who are “just jealous” that they do not fit the narrow definition of sexy like Gilmore does. It’s sad that this has become the standard response to criticism of all the sexist bullshit – if you speak out, you’re labelled envious, embittered or – the worst insult a woman could ever receive – “ugly”. The thing is, no one ever asked Roxy to ‘exclude [sexiness] for [athleticism]’ in their advertising. All they asked was that, when advertising a sporting competition, Roxy show athletes competing, rather than lying, languid and vulnerable, in bed.
It’s really sad to see a brand, which is aimed at teenage girls (Roxy’s Facebook page says, ‘We bring inspiration to girls to dream big and have fun’) justifying itself in this manner. Teenagers who may have been uncomfortable with the ad, who might have felt devalued by viewing it, or young surfers who might have been left feeling that their talent in the water was nothing if they didn’t have the requisite gap between their pert thighs, are left thinking that their sense of offense is unjustified, or worse, that it is motivated by jealousy.
And the saddest thing of all? Roxy missed a great opportunity here. They signed one of the world’s greatest surfers; they secured sponsorship of a major competition; they could have filmed a kickarse commercial showing Gilmore as the athlete she is, performing deeds us mere mortals can only dream of. Ultimately, anyone can remove their clothes and lie in bed. But there are only a few people in the world that can do what Gilmore can.