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Banning sexist advertising

I can scarcely wrap my mind around the monolithic effort it would take to put into effect a ban on sexist imagery in advertising. Some would argue that nearly all advertising is, by virtue of its existence, sexist. Unfazed, both the Danish and Norwegian governments have passed laws banning sexist images in advertising (as reported by the BBC). Sweden recently decided not to ban such ads ("Cuz we're chill like that."). The law in question would makes a distinction between merely sexy ads (a-ok):


And sexist ads (no-no):

For those wondering, the offensive nature of the latter photo is that it shows women in a low-paying job (as though this is some sort of deviation from the norm?). The BBC article did not run specific examples of the ads that so offended Denmark and Norway. It did mention that one of the banned ads depicted a woman nurse with men's underwear on her face, "implying that she just had sex with a patient." I did a Google image search for "nurse with men's underwear" which immediately turned up the ad:


It's part of a series of ads for men's underwear; other photos show a sexy secretary and a sexy maid similarly sniffing men's skivvies. To be clear, I am against sexism--I believe in the equal valuation and treatment of all genders and support efforts aimed at this goal. However, if we're going to use this ad as a reference point, I disagree with the anti-sexism law on a number of fronts. First of all, let's get to a correct read on the scene. This woman did not just have sex with her patient. This image is way more subversive than that. It evokes a classic panty fetish scenario, in which the fetishist steals a pair of his lust object's dirty undies and revels in the remnants of the occupant's nether regions, risking discovery at any moment. The image is subversive, both for its gender reversal and for having broached "deviant" sexuality. Sure, you can read it as sexist, but more than that it's hot and rebellious. I kind of love it.

Beyond the artistic merit of this specific ad, it is a deeply troubling notion that governments would get involved with legislating sexism in art (yes, I'm calling advertising art) for several reasons. It is not possible to stamp out sexism in advertising images, since the very context of the medium is inseparable from sexism. Secondly, sanitizing advertising will not help reduce sexism in the world. Even if a governing body were sophisticated enough to pick up correctly on sexist nuances in advertising (and as the banning of the ad in question demonstrates, the Scandinavians certainly are not), sexism is not caused by advertising. I'll buy that ads reinforce sexism, but they certainly did not invent it, and sexism will persist even if all advertising disappeared tomorrow. Thirdly, it is up to the public and consumers to let advertisers know when they've gone too far--not the government. That is the point of capitalism and is why 1984 gives us the shivers. And finally, kick-ass, subversive, sexual images should not suffer in the service of a politically correct, utopian, heavy-handed, government-enforced law to systematically stifle expression.

So, naughty nurses, sniff away. Subversive sexual images are so much more powerful than any law which strives to ban them.


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I probably would have disagreed with you at the beginning but you really convinced me otherwise. This is fantastic.

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