Is this sexist? And is it relevant in a copywriting community?

December 9, 2013 •
Sticker on ute that I posted in the copywriting community

Yesterday, I saw the above sticker on a ute at McDonald’s.

I posted it in the Australian Copywriters community on Google+. A few people complained to the community owner about it, and one posted comments accusing me outright of sexism. The post was subsequently deleted.

Is the cartoon sexist?

The illustration itself depicts two (clothed and smiling) people in a sexual position. Nothing sexist there. Yes, the man in the illustration is in a position that’s often associated with power (and rape), but they’re both smiling, so I think we can assume it’s consensual and they’re both enjoying it.

So I don’t believe the illustration itself is sexist. And actually, to reduce that particular illustration to power/rape would betray a sexist attitude towards men, because there’s no hint of either in the illustration.

So if it’s not the illustration itself, it must be the writing (or the combination of writing + imagery). The overarching message.

Is the overarching message sexist? I think it depends on the ute owner’s reasons for putting the sticker on his car…

It’s sexist if he’s serious

If he were serious, he’d be bragging about having sex with everyone’s mum and using that fact as a tool to try to upset the viewer, particularly those people who stick family stickers on their cars. I agree, that would be sexist, because it would suggest he thinks it’s ok to advertise his consensual sexual exploits with mothers, and that it’s ok to use those exploits, and by extension the mothers, as tools to help him achieve some other objective. In other words, women are tools.

I think, given the context and the cultural capital this cartoon is built on, that we can also assume the hypothetical mothers in question have not given their permission for such advertising, and that they would be humiliated if he did. Therefore, he’s suggesting it’s ok to dismiss mothers’ preferences, and to humiliate them in order to achieve some other objective. In other words, women are not only tools, but it’s OK to betray their trust and humiliate them.

But is it sexist if he’s joking?

If he’s NOT serious and just thought it was funny, then he’s saying it’s OK to use sexist jokes just to get a laugh. If anyone reading this has never told a blonde joke or a ‘mere man’ joke, I’ll eat my hat. Even those of us who are aware of the sexism inherent in the joke and the possible ramifications of it (and many aren’t) still do it. Because, let’s face it, some sexist jokes are funny!

Is that sexist? I don’t think so. When I tell a blonde joke (or laugh at one), it says nothing about my attitude towards blondes or women.

Does it perpetuate sexism? Maybe, maybe not. But either way, it’s a long way shy of sexism, in my book.

And what if he’s being ironic?

What if the ute owner isn’t just going for the cheap laugh. What if he’s being ironic? What if he’s saying, “I know this is sexist. I’m using it to shock you, to draw your attention to the sexism, to say it’s wrong and to make it very clear I’m not sexist.”?

Is that sexist? No.

We don’t know why he stuck it on his car

We don’t KNOW the ute owner’s reasons. To assume he’s serious because he’s a man is just as sexist as the sexism he’d be guilty of if he were (serious). To assume he’s serious because he’s a ute owner is equally prejudiced. So is assuming he’s serious because his ute looked very much like a country ute. In fact, to assume any single reason is to take liberties, and to flirt with sexism yourself.

For that matter, we don’t even know the ute owner is a man!

Am I sexist for posting it on Google+?

Enough about the ute owner. Let’s talk about me! 😉

In hindsight, I can understand why some people complained. I didn’t say why I posted it. I assumed, given that most of us in the community are copywriters, everyone else would see the same value in it I did. Obviously not.

But I think accusations of sexism are out of line. In fact, I think they’re sexist, in themselves. Here’s why…

You don’t know my reasons

Just as we don’t know the ute owner’s reasons for putting the sticker on his vehicle, members of the copywriting community don’t actually know my reasons for posting the picture there.

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s why I posted it:

  1. From a conceptual/copywriting point of view, I thought the sticker was funny, clever, topical and attention-grabbing. Exactly how I like my copywriting.
  2. I thought it was funny BECAUSE it was so inappropriate. Who hasn’t laughed at a ‘bad taste’ joke?
  3. I was being ironic. Those who know me well know that I occasionally say politically incorrect things deliberately, in order to highlight the fact that I know they’re politically incorrect and to comment on the negative message inherent in the utterance (and those who usually use it in seriousness). E.g. I might say “niggers” to draw attention to racism, “pillow-biting sausage jockey” to draw attention to homophobia, or “spaz” to draw attention to insensitivity to the intellectually handicapped. This has landed me in hot water in the past, when it’s been mis-read. And here we are again… 😉

Now I know everyone’s busy, and to most people, social media is a smash-and-grab sort of affair. And I know I didn’t do myself any favours by not explaining my reasons for posting in the first place. But I think it’s misguided to immediately condemn my post and to label me as sexist for posting it.

You don’t really know me

Yes, I’m sexist. You are too. We all are, simply by virtue of being brought up in a sexist society. Plus we’re all humans, and humans naturally stereotype people in order to make sense of the world around them.

But I flatter myself that I’m one of the least sexist people I know.

So calling me sexist is sexist!

So when someone calls me sexist, based purely on a single image, with no understanding of my reasons for posting it, my history, my relationships or my actual attitudes, they’re making a lot of assumptions and adopting attitudes about me based purely on my gender. I’m male, I posted something that may be sexist, therefore I’m sexist.

Is that not sexism, itself?

Feel free to comment...
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Adam Franklin wrote on December 9th, 2013

Wow, what a can of worms you've opened here Glenn! Firstly, I think the ute owner is definitely trying to get a rise and is doing so in a cheeky, attention seeking way. Some will rise to the bait, whilst others will simply chuckle. Whether it makes you, me, the ute owner or the critics 'sexist'.... I have no idea. That is too way too much to consider for this blog comment. I certainly don't take offence, and even if I did, I wouldn't be shooting the messenger.

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Anna Butler wrote on December 9th, 2013

Hard to see what's sexist, or "perpetuating violence against women", from a stick-figure cartoon of two people obviously engaging in what appears to be a consentual activity. Was this cheeky? Yes. Was it copywriting related? Debatable. Was it offensive? Certainly not in my eyes. This is something my brother would send to his teenage son as a joke. Yeah.. me & your mum!! OOOOoooh... controversy!!!! How you perceive an image like this is personal context. To me, there is nothing violent or sexist to make this offensive. And even if some random person is suggesting they've "got it on" with your mum. So what? If my mum is the best they can pull, then I think the joke is on them!! Frankly I think there are far more offensive things in this world to vent my moral outrage on than this.

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Laurel wrote on December 9th, 2013

It's the bigger picture "Your Mum" comments ALWAYS mean your mother is sexually available to allcomers and is intended as a cheeky insult. A guy using women to insult another guy is still objectifying women. A guy saying "you must be gay" as a joke to another guy is still implying that a gay guy is weak/wussy. Now whether "sexually available" or "wussy & weak" is positive/affirmative or negative/pejorative is a community decision but the intent is there. Do I care if my community members say "your Mom" or "you're so ghey" to each other? Not really, it's usually cheeky & mucking around. Does it have a deeper social meaning? Hell yes. Don't ignore that, even while you accept humour as reflecting the mores of that society. To do otherwise is where the real danger lies. My 2 cents worth and now I've spent it *waves*

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Glenn Murray wrote on December 9th, 2013

Hey Laurel. Thanks for stopping by. Always lovely to see you. Lovelier when you agree with me, but whadyagunnado? I'd add sexual availability (of mums, not all women) to my list of reasons it's sexist if used in any serious way - if he's trying to upset or insult people. But certainly not ALWAYS. I certainly didn't mean that, and we can't assume the ute owner did either. Obviously even if it's just a joke, it alludes to this concept, but is this sexist? Not necessarily. Again, it all comes back to the actual attitudes of the person using it. Of course, it may still be perceived as sexist by some people, but that's another discussion entirely.

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Glenn Murray wrote on December 9th, 2013

Thanks for your comment, Adam. I'm tempted to agree with you, that the ute owner is trying to get a rise, but it's just stereotyping making me think that. I knew a big old country bloke when I worked at Citect. To look at him or his car, or to hear his voice and manner of speaking, you'd think he was a bumpkin. But he was one of the most sensitive, culturally aware people I've known. He WOULD put this sticker on his car ironically. But I certainly agree, don't shoot the messenger! ;-)

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Glenn Murray wrote on December 9th, 2013

Hi Anna. Thanks for commenting. I haven't met your mum, so I can't comment on that! But if this bloke's romancing my mum, I say go for it. My dad died over a year ago, so she could probably do with a bit. ;-) I agree the sticker's relevance to copywriting is debatable. But if you ever get a chance to speak to my wife, she'll confirm that I think EVERY published message is copywriting-related! Love it or hate it, any serious copywriter would have to take note of it, if only because of its ability to generate this discussion.

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Jesse wrote on December 9th, 2013

G'day Glenn! I don't find the cartoon sexist either. It might be crass or 'bad taste' to some people, but who cares? One of my favourite aussie comedians is "Rodney Rude" because of his politically incorrect, no-joke-is-out-of-bounds brand of comedy. I think when we start censoring humour and branding jokes as "sexist" or "offensive", then we are restricting our ideas and thinking as a society. From a copywriters point of view, I've incorporated cartoon images (even ones that could be considered "sexist") in video sales presentations before and seen a significant boost in conversions as a result! That's because cartoons are eye-catching and engaging images that are able to convey so much, in such little space. So Glenn, good on you for not censoring yourself, conforming with the herd, or crumbling when others ignorantly cry "sexist" without reason or understanding!

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Doc Sheldon wrote on December 9th, 2013

"Again, it all comes back to the actual attitudes of the person using it." Hi, Glenn- Actually, I'd argue that it comes back to the attitude of the person viewing it. If, for instance, someone's mum had recentl;y been raped in a home invasion, their perception would be understandably different from yours or mine. The fact that the person that shared the cartoon might be the least sexist person on the planet has no bearing on the manner in which it's perceived. I once had my head handed to me by a couple of guys that overheard me addressing my best friend by the pejorative "N-word", We exchanged playful racial slurs all the time, all in fun. But as I lay in the ER getting my ear reattached, it occurred to me that it might be wise to consider the way things are heard, more than the way they are said. We can't control

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Glenn Murray wrote on December 9th, 2013

Heya Doc. Thanks for your comment. That's a pretty scary story. But it doesn't mean you were racist, it means you were careless.

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Glenn Murray wrote on December 9th, 2013

Thanks Jesse. There's a blog post in that, for you. I'd love to hear the story and see the stats, next time you do it. :-)

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Anna Butler wrote on December 10th, 2013

"I think when we start censoring humour and branding jokes as “sexist” or “offensive”, then we are restricting our ideas and thinking as a society." Yes! And really, we are ultimately responsible for how we CHOOSE to react to something. If we choose to be offended and upset - we give our power to the other party. If we choose to ignore - or better still, laugh at - the other party, we take the power from them. If they can't get a rise from us, they soon learn not to bother with such behaviour.

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Fred Schebestsa wrote on December 11th, 2013

Its pure humour. No one would go around printing and selling stickers if it wasnt.

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