Defending anti-oppression activism while using bigoted language

Now that I’ve started this series, I seem to be drowning in examples. Every time I go to finish a post I’ve started, I come across something new that I want to post for Privilege in Action. In addition to this one, I have two more that I want to write.. not to mention the non-related posts I need to finish. Anyway, this PiA post came to my attention via ilyka, who posted a critique of a critique of the newest Dove commercial.

Reading her post, and especially the parts she highlighted from the original article by Slate’s Seth Stevenson, I was struck by the fact that, while trying to call out the Dove ads for not being feminist enough, he used language that belittled and objectified women.

A quick scan of his article turns up these terms and phrases: “[a] woman cavorts in her shower”, “plus-sized hottie”, “average-looking woman”, “I’m told that even bargain-basement porn features flashier production values and more compelling actresses”, “simpering coed”, “extremely angry ladies”, “women have strong emotional attachments”, “nonemaciated women”, “righteous sisterhood”, “in which nearly every woman shown is a skinny, fashion-model-gorgeous nymphomaniac”, “the Dove girls”, “skinnier, hotter women”, “woman’s charming smile”, “lovely Sara Ramirez”, “nude older babes”, “[w]omen of a certain age will aspire to look like the fit, attractive senior citizens featured in the ad”.

One or two of the ones I pulled were the right words to use for the context, but are still part of a disturbing pattern when the article is looked at as a whole. Behind the jump I examine some of the language in context and talk about how privilege allows us not to see how the language we use in defending non-privileged groups reinforces exactly what we’re arguing against.

I. Can we fight beauty standards if we continue to objectify women?

Of all of the women specifically pointed out, Seth objectifies all but one.

He begins by introducing Sara Ramirez as, “the winner by Grey’s Anatomy actress (and plus-sized hottie) Sara Ramirez.” (It should be noted that he ends the article with another reference to Sara Ramirez’s looks, calling her “lovely”.) Then he goes on to label the woman in the Dove ad as an, “average-looking woman” and describes one of her competitors as “another simpering coed in her bathroom”. He goes on to critique the women in Axe products by their looks and perceived sexual habits, describing the typical Axe actress as “a skinny, fashion-model-gorgeous nymphomaniac”. Yet another reference goes to “nude older babes”, furthering the fatphobic weight focus with lauding the women as “fit, attractive senior citizens”. In the entire piece, only one woman escapes a physical critique. She is the other losing competitor for the Dove ads and he describes her as having a “mild flair and [being] a likable protagonist”.

Seth is not a raving misogynist. He is not an anti-feminist. He’s a liberal man writing for a liberal publication, publishing an article that is supposed to be taking to task a corporation that is cashing in by giving women watered-down feminism.

And yet, his article is full of inappropriate references to women’s looks (hint: if you want to criticize the way that the beauty industry objectifies and dehumanizes women, you shouldn’t engage in the same tactics), sex-negative slut shaming (“simpering co-ed” and “nymphomaniac”, anyone?), and the unquestioned assumption that he is entitled to make value judgments on women’s looks. Furthermore, he has no need to question whether or not it’s appropriate in a professional publication to reduce all these women — from the professionals (the actors and models) to the real life women who participated in the ad campaign — to objects that he could label as “attractive” or “not attractive” without regards to relevancy to the article.

II. Should we think about if our language is appropriate for our argument?

Language is a powerful tool that can be used to sway a person to your argument, to create community solidarity, but it can also be used to rationalize away the systematic oppression of others. Privilege is being able to defend causes of non-privileged groups without having to examine how your own language and actions are contributing to the power imbalance.

Indeed, beyond what I mentioned above, Seth vocally brushed off the women who had written into him criticizing his stance by calling them “extremely angry ladies” (and people wonder why I say that the term “ladies” is sexist language). I, of course, addressed the issue of depicting non-privileged groups as irrational in a previous PiA post, but it’s also part of being able to unthinkingly use phrases that belittle the people who are fighting for, and actually affected by, the issues that you are defending.

III. Conclusion

One of the running themes in this category is that the people expressing privilege that I highlight are normal people like you and me. They are often pro-equality and, indeed, many of the examples I use specifically are tied into them positively engaging with anti-oppression discourse in some way or another. But just because you’re fighting for one aspect of equality doesn’t mean that you get a free pass for other forms of bigotry.

In the end, articles like the one Seth wrote work more against the cause he’s arguing for rather than helping. If we truly want to help in the fight for equality, then we must start with ourselves.

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5 thoughts on “Defending anti-oppression activism while using bigoted language

  1. This reminds me of a page I was forwarded about women in the Israeli army. Actually, it’s a forum thread consisting entirely of women in the IDF just chilling out or undergoing training, with only one or two cheesily posed shots out of the dozens there. It would have been a perfect feminist thread showing competent women in their element, had it not been for the title: “Hot Israeli Women in the IDF.” So close…

    At least I can take comfort from the fact that all of the shots were “day in the life of” rather than pinups.

  2. DS: Your comment got caught in the spam filter… I’m glad I checked it. Thanks for sharing, though.

    At least I can take comfort from the fact that all of the shots were “day in the life of” rather than pinups.

    Yeah, it’s somewhat comforting that this time it was two steps forward, one step back instead of the reverse.

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