Stuff That Steams My Clams

I was reading an article about women’s roles in the United States military and was surprised to learn that regulations still prohibit women from serving in combat. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have blurred the lines of warfare to such a degree that women have found themselves, despite the rules that forbid it, fighting alongside men for the first time. The women have proven themselves to be tenacious soldiers and they have earned many medals of valor.

Ad spotted on Madison Avenue

Ad spotted on Madison Avenue

With this article fresh in my mind, I left work and walked toward Grand Central Station for my evening commute. Along the way I saw this (see photo to the left). Now I’m a fan of advertising that is smart, quirky, and original, but I really found this advertisement contemptible. Sure, I get it—it’s supposed to be funny. But why am I not laughing? To place female police officers in a derogatory, sexualized context is just plain demeaning.

Unlike the military’s regulations denying women combat roles, police departments do not have rules that keep women out of harm’s way. Female police officers perform the same duties as their male counterparts. Yet advertisements like this one, printed with big, bold letters, send a clear message to the women in blue: We don’t respect you.

The show being advertised is from The Learning Channel (TLC), which for some reason feels it must stoop to the lowest common denominator to attract viewers. Advertising is a powerful medium, but when used thoughtlessly, advertisements can—and do—reinforce demeaning stereotypes and biases. As a parent, this message strikes a particular nerve. My nine-year-old son reads everything. When he reads this advertisement and inevitably asks me what it means, what is my answer supposed to be? And why should I even have to explain something like this to him?

What can we do about this? Complain to the FCC. Complain to TLC.

Women who demanded respect and got it:
Anna May Wong
Hiromi Suzuki
Augusta Savage
Marcenia Lyle/Toni Stone
Rosa Parks

11 Comments

  1. Posted September 8, 2009 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Good man, Jason. I agree. Especially with kids in tow, it is amazing to see what society considers “harmless”. You can literally watch the curve growing as people expand what is acceptable in the media. Not that I am a big censor or anything, but there are appropriate outlets for satire. Just because something is clever and can be funny in the right context does not mean it is not also harmful to a general audience. Just because you can does not mean you should.

    Big up to all the women who demand respect out there!

  2. Estelle McDoniel
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    I wrote the biography of Alene B. Duerk. The book is titled “Registered Nurse to Rear Admiral…A First for Navy Women?. You might enjoy reading about the accomplishments of one woman including her service on a hospital ship, etc. etc. etc.

    If you’d like a copy and can’t find it, let me know. I have several soft cover copies and would be happy to send you one.

    Estelle

  3. Posted September 8, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting that the first objection to this ad (that I’ve seen) comes from a man. I appreciate your sensitivity very much, Jason, but shouldn’t there be, in all of NYC, a woman who notices this and sees red? Or are we women so used to having our body parts figure in jokes that we don’t even notice it any more? And where were the women at The Learning Channel (or aren’t there any?) when this was given the ok?

  4. Jerry Michel
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Jason. The power of language is often overlooked when used to incite reactions or grab our attention. Another great article, along the same theme, was posted yesterday on National Public Radio’s (npr.org) site yesterday, entitled “Rethinking ‘Retarded': Should It Leave The Lexicon?”

  5. Jason Low
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Sally,
    It is very time consuming to go after ads like this and receive any kind of satisfaction. Filing a complaint about this ad with the FCC and TLC took me 10-15 minutes which might be too much to ask of people’s time nowadays. The amount of ads on the street that are explicit is monumental. Where to start?

  6. Christine
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Actually – it was Claudette Colvin who demanded respect and didn’t get off the bus initially.

    Rosa Parks was brave but she knew she had back-up. She was selected by the NAACP which had decided Claudette – now pregnant – wasn’t as good a role model for a test case as a woman with straight hair and lighter skin.

    Claudette did it before Rosa and without a posse – that took more guts. That’s a real story of empowerment.

  7. Christine
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    to answer the question – a complaint to TLC and their advertisers will get you much farther than to the FCC which will be hamstrung by the laws regarding Freedom Of Speech.

  8. Jason Low
    Posted September 10, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I’m aware of Claudette Colvin. I have a copy of a book put out on her, but it is still in my “to read” pile. There have been many firsts that have superseded the historically accepted firsts. For instance, Jackie Robinson has always been credited with breaking the color barrier in MLB, but Louis Sockalexis, a Native American baseball player actually broke the color barrier fifty years before him. When Louis played baseball he received the same vicious racist treatment that Jackie received from fans and players alike. I’d like to also point out that having a posse behind you does not insure safety. John Lewis, who was one of Martin Luther Kings lieutenants and well-supported, got his head bashed in and put in the hospital after Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. While I am sure I will find Claudette’s story compelling, her story doesn’t lessen Rosa Parks’s contribution. They are all real stories.

  9. Jason Low
    Posted September 10, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    And it was definitely easier to complain to TLC! The FCC form was a bit confusing.

  10. Christine
    Posted September 11, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I hear you. I think the point I’m making is that today’s kids have been beaten over the head with the same iconic figures and so the impact isn’t as great anymore. Ever notice, when making AA lists, for instance, the media seldom talks about contemporary heros (unless they’re Oprah or otherwise an actor or musician?)

    In this case, Claudette’s issue is more heartbreaking because she’s still alive and unrecognized. And deservedly unhappy to be shunted aside by the NAACP.

    I think we, as authors, can break new ground and give children something to cheer about if we introduced them to what is less known. Doesn’t negate the contributions of the others – but kids begin to see the current icons as gods on a pedestal. Many of us hope children will learn about the real people behind the scenes. That’s often more empowering and easier to emulate than the people we present who have achieved “superhero” status and thus feel “untouchable.”

  11. Jason Low
    Posted September 14, 2009 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Christine, No argument here. Which is why we have chosen to publish an array of biographies about historical figures who would not be considered household names, but have made considerable contributions. The story of Claudette Colvin is an unfortunate one. I finished the book on Claudette over the weekend. Politically I understand why the NAACP made the decision it made to make Rosa Parks the figurehead. Doesn’t make it right, but the NAACP was fighting an all out war and they wanted to win. I do like that Claudette was only fifteen when she made her stand. Young people need to hear the message that their voices can be powerful too.


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