art, sensuality & sexism

An age ago, I worked for the pest control company Rentokil and I got signed onto a pigeon control course. There was one sole woman attending it and about ten men. The training involved getting a shooting licence for a gas-powered “gun” (a technical definition prevented it from being an actual gun).

The course commenced with a slide show (pre powerpoint days) about bird identification. It started with a picture of garden birds on a feeder and the words “look at the tits on this!” and went downhill from there. The director showed slides of staff at his company – all male technicians apart from the last one which was supposed to be a photo of his female secretary. Instead, it was a topless model.

It continued to an indoor shooting range with a qualified marksman. He would stop in his teachings and address the woman to apologise after each time he swore, “Oops – sorry, love – forgetting there’s a lady present”. At one point, he started talking about mucous membranes, I think, brought up by the topic of salmonella associated with bird droppings and how it’s transmitted. After indicating his mouth and nose he then pointed at his crotch and again put the woman in the spotlight, “Even bigger area with the ladies -” he said looking her up and down, “ – pardon my French!”, and turning to laugh with the men – not with her.

It went on and on.

I believe it perturbed me more than her. I didn’t see her again – not because she fled but because she was advancing up through management and was just attending the course to get experience of different corners of the company.

I recognise that the words make this image explicitly sexist.

But after tormenting myself about it, I rang the director of the slide show as I had his business card. I talked to him about his presentation and asked whether his secretary – naming her by name – was aware she was being represented by a naked model. His tone was diplomatic, dulcet and careful. He assured me it wouldn’t be necessary to take things any further. Once the call ended, I was in a cold sweat.

I regretted doing it at the time because I thought I’d over-reacted. I was only in my mid-twenties with no presence and little social confidence. Looking back, I don’t regret it – I’m quite proud – and the case was maybe better raised by one of the boys to underline the fact it’s not about which gender club you’re in. Because it entails treating women differently, some things shouldn’t be acceptable.

On reflection, I get the feeling the director would’ve changed the slides sensing potential damage to his company by association. The marksman, being an alpha male, would’ve carried on as he was because I’ve encountered them before.

They’re men who command a certain respect by low-resolution menace. A small circle of people automatically gravitate around bellwethers like these. The wide-cast posture at the bar, the confidence in the timbre. The gaze that is sustained whilst others’ are dropped. People will appease because – subconsciously – they feel they won’t win in a confrontation. Women will play the role he’s assigned to them and become shy and girly. Men will laugh along at things they normally wouldn’t. Primes set what is and isn’t allowable.

Alpha males (and their female counterparts) are put on earth to outline our weakness. And there’s a realisation that the chain reaction continues upwards. They’ll get authority on their side – succeed through candid gall in selling themselves as the reasonable one, big enough to accept the over-reactions of those around them for the sake of closure. This display of magnanimous behaviour may as well be narrated by David Attenborough.

“And thus he re-asserts his grip on the social pack”.

Manipulative men exist in all sectors. They’re in the ranks of the conservatives, socialists, liberals and greens. They’ll be grooming novice female aides in the SNP, UKIP and Momentum. They’re photographed wearing T shirts with “this is what a feminist looks like” emblazoned across the chest. They’re writing posts about bodily abhorring sexism as well as penning posts like this one.

All the images of J Wakefield branding in this post are cropped versions from @NateDawg27 Twitter feed – well worth following (my views don’t reflect his).

Following the inauguration of Donald Trump and the revelation of his “just grab ‘em by the pussy” comments, one prominent placard-bearer campaigning against him in the women’s march in Salt Lake City was a certain Harvey Weinstein.

If I was sexist – because perhaps I am – how would I know?

Over the past few months I’ve started to find myself in disagreement with some artwork being deemed sexist on social media. So as not to generalise, I can give two specific examples: the artwork used by J Wakefield – a brewery in Miami, and the artwork used by Station 119 based in Suffolk.

To my mind, the former is using cosplay women in its branding. Cosplay (a diminution of costume play) is the art of dressing up to channel and tribute a character from fiction – often sexualised characters from film or computer gaming. For many cosplayers, it’s a liberating experience because these alter-egos can often exude a confidence the person under the make up can’t – therefore a catharsis. It’s what the figures on Gourdita and Pineapple Pop remind me of.

In my opinion, the woman in Orange Dreamsicle has been rendered sympathetically. She has a rounded pear body shape not often represented in illustrations; quite heavy set in the tummy and hips – rather than emaciated with huge breasts. From her perspective, it’s a positive sensual experience. The look in her is suggestive. There’s the implication she’ll be licking the juice off her forearm and drawing it off her thigh, so the subject is thus sexualised too.

I find it pleasing to look at. I find it sexy, sensual and sexual. But I don’t find it sexist.

There’s no denying the images by Station 119 categorically represent male fantasy – the fetishisation of the female body. But I think these images are beautiful too, and they make me think of the context they were forged in. It was during a time when western culture was shifting in its attitude towards both sexual expression and sexuality and these images bear testament to this enduring through the darkest of times.

To me, the nose art is affirmation of the human spirit; talismans painted on the plane fuselages for young pilots to daydream about when they didn’t know whether they’d ever return from a mission. It’s the creation of sensual art for its own sake – free from the censor of clergy and its ancient books; rebellious – two fingers up to the moral blinkers of establishment. They represent the dawn of the liberal attitudes of our own age.

At least they do if you let them.

The fact you’re invited to look at their bodies is without question, but I like sensual imagery for its own sake and I don’t attach any shame to the fact I do. I celebrate it.

I should also point out that this isn’t an argument to make all beer art about sensual body depiction – just for when breweries choose to do so.

I’m not trying to argue that images can’t be exploitative in other ways. The previous images all exploit female form, but others can gloat the dehumanisation of women in a sexualised way.

In about 1988 I was on a school bus next to a classmate called Simon (“Wormy” as he was known). We shared a passion and rivalry for all things Iron Maiden. But we had a divergence: my fallback group was Motörhead, his was Guns n’ Roses. I recall him leaning in clandestinely to draw something out from his satchel. He had an album called Appetite For Destruction which opened like a book to reveal the image below. No words were spoken.

It’s difficult relating memories accurately, but I think we made insightful eye contact and flashed an uncomfortable grin. We might even have blushed. This was because we’d seen the image of a woman’s breast who had her knickers around her ankles. The LP was then quietly re-sheathed for safety.

If the older boys had seen it, the album would’ve been rough-housed around the coach with the shrieks only teenagers from a boys’ school can frack up.

I can’t be sure, but I don’t recall identifying with the only human on the cover. It was the nakedness that struck me – not the fact the subject had been raped – bosom slashed – and been humiliated to tears in order to be the object of voyeuristic thrill.

A girl in my age group might have had a very different reaction to seeing the image.

There’s a supposed backstory to the illustration: the robot in the mac represents the music industry and how it violates artists. So the big dagger-toothed beast leaping over the fence is meant to be the rock group about to valiantly depose it.

How the picture actually works is a guy is aroused by the exposed chest of the girl, but by affiliating with the band, simultaneously feels righteous in her choreographed rescue. Or, once the red creature has flattened the droid, does it then go on molest the woman too as a spoil of war? I think that’s called chivalry.

It’s a shocking image though an undoubted work of professional art and is representative of what was accepted in the 1980s. Un-consensual sex was, after all, still sex that separated you from the squares. That was rock & roll.

It’s my best example of casual rape culture in mainstream art, and it’s one of the highest-selling albums of all time. It raises a difficult question – one that’s part of the current debate about sexism: what is it trying to communicate and to whom, and what is and isn’t acceptable to depict?

Image source: The Art of Cosplay Facebook page.

And the argument – an old castanea – that women have been depicted sensuously since classical times (and so always will be) is one I think is true but a terrible debating position. It just says something has always been thus, so don’t try and change it – simple defeatism.

I’m obviously relating things from my point of view. I did want to try and get some insight into what other people think. I asked my ex-partner, my ward councillor and my sister.

My ex was fond of the J Wakefield art – particularly the sensuality of Orange Dreamsicle, but didn’t like the Station 119 imagery.

My counsellor (a coaching psychologist by trade who helps women achieve more in the workplace) thought categorically that all the images in this post are sexist and designed purely to sell to men.

My sister (also from a psychology background) didn’t understand why any of the images would cause offence, but then she’s an older sibling perhaps just supporting her younger brother’s writing.

Personally, if I can see the person in the depiction – the human creature – expressing a “good” emotion, I have no problem with it.

Maybe a better acid test of an illustration depicting a fellow human should be: if undress is involved, can you empathise with the character? Would you enjoy being in their place and does the subject actually show that? In the case of the J Wakefield and Station 119 pictures I’d say yes – the characters are being depicted in a positive way.

Maybe there could be guidelines. Based on some of the tropes of bottle and pump clip art I’ve seen online or from memory, the following are a few pointers that might safeguard the freedom of sensual depiction for its own sake:

The character should be part of an engagement with the viewer so (s)he isn’t the subject of voyeurism (s)he’s unaware of.

The artwork doesn’t casually depict predatory behaviour.

Sensuality shouldn’t be implied with the subject being underage – such as school uniform.

No genuine real life person should be depicted in a sensual context unless it’s with the explicit consent of that individual.

In conjunction with undress, the character must be depicted in a way that suggests a positive experience.

To me, it boils down to whether you can see the mind behind the image. What might seem exploitative to some is empowering to others.

Yesterday Castle Rock Brewery changed its Elsie Mo artwork – a move that was greeted happily by Sara Barton of Brewsters Brewery who uses a reclining woman in her branding, which to me, is similar though not fetishistic. Because this endorsement came from a woman’s perspective, it gave me pause for thought: I can’t rule out the possibility that other people are better at telling sensuous/empowering from sensuous/exploitative than me.

I don’t think it’s the case but I can’t prove otherwise so I need to be open to it.

Elsie Mo as she was. Her updated version is below.

The discussion about sex over the past few generations has been a liberating one. From being seen simply as a necessary act to be undertaken immediately after marriage in order to fulfil societal roles, it’s both freed people from lives already written for them, but also removed the certainties we used to cling to. We’re still looking for structure.

The dialogue has explored nuances and dynamics of sex and put derivative words like sexual, sexy, sex-positive, sex drive, sexuality and of course sexist into common parlance. It’s given us the tools to actually dissect and explore it.

One benefit is that it’s removed the “causal” link between something being seen – a woman’s hair, her ankles, her modesty – and the automatic sex response from the male. This is the idea that if a woman exposes more than she should, she only has herself to blame for the man’s advances.

Moving away from this model (still maintained in many cultures) hasn’t just liberated women but men too. It means a male like me isn’t regarded as a dumb beast who can’t control his desires after being “triggered” and I’m happy having that basic human dignity restored to me.

Why is it that a freedom that has been fought for by women – to dress however they like, to accentuate the cleavage on a night out, bear legs, feel confident and sexy without that being a tacit signal for men to take advantage – is reversed for artwork. Here the female characters need to cover up because they might encourage sexism.

Sexism is a part of our culture and the public house can be a barometer of it. When trying to shape a culture or change it, it’s natural to go for the visual static points and see them as symptomatic of the culture they’re from. As inanimate items, it’s easy to take images down, whereas getting into people’s minds to change the animus of the culture isn’t. And this is part of my problem with the notion that pictures lead to a culture of sexism. It’s the “leads to” I have an issue with.

I’m not critical of the artwork. It’s positive and attributes the Air Transport Auxiliary and makes me think of my grandparents: the RAF (him) and fire warden in the East End (her).

In other words, my behaviour towards women doesn’t come from fantasy illustrations of them, but from being raised by a mum and dad who respected women, through marriage, family, relationships at work, and the fact that they’re the authors of books on my shelf, people I follow for their insight on social media or for their creative skills.

Women are rightly speaking up about not being taken seriously in the industry because of gender – a bias often promulgated by their fellow women.

It’s also important to highlight sexist climates that allow women to be touched up as a bit of fun. This behaviour should be outed because it demoralises. The onus of being socially predatory needs to be put back on the perpetrator – any “shame” needs to be yoked back around them.

I have a small insight into how it feels to be the subject of unwanted advances – and I stress the word small. It isn’t the equal of what women have to put up with on a regular basis. I’m small-framed and look very boyish (even at forty, I can still be asked to prove my age when buying alcohol). This has provoked something in some males.

The first time I was ever propositioned was by a man standing in the doorway of a gents toilet in Geneva. I was thirteen. At secondary school, two boys – both considerably bigger than me – in their own separate ways persistently came up with “play fight” ways to grope me quite aggressively. This is pretty normal, but at the time it made me deliberately abscond during P.E and swimming lessons. An ex-bouncer once pinned my arms to my sides and lifted me off the pavement to snog me for a few seconds. I felt humiliated by it.

Experiences like these have happened periodically through my life and if there’s been any benefit to these episodes, it’s that it’s made me more aware of how I signal with people in close quarters around me. To me, sexism is about how we behave in our interactions together – our treatment to each other in real life. It requires emotional intelligence, empathy and not least respect.

You need to be aware of your own weight and others’ personal space.

Currently, we seem to be shaming and shutting down some artwork that depicts women emoting sensually, but I think it’s started to become indiscriminate. Each plate that’s quietly taken down doesn’t represent another gain for women in the industry in my view, it just represents more censored artwork.

I think greater equality in the industry doesn’t come from removing artwork, but by diluting it by as many creative forces from as many backgrounds as possible. In this way, a culture is evolved and multiplied.

Also, I don’t recognise the right for a minority of people to decide what the rest of us can or can’t see or express creatively. Neither do I recognise the right for a majority to do so either, especially when we’re talking about adults being the audience. I want us to be free to make up our own minds.

We should celebrate the enjoyment – without shame – of the positive depiction of the human form in all its sensuality, and I’d like this right to be safeguarded for the benefit of everybody. Our sympathies should simply be geared towards the subject depicted.

5 Comments

  1. Haven’t time to read whole article but thank you for speaking to that manager about his choice of images – that was a heroic thing to do

  2. A thoughtful analysis of a difficult subject which I happened to read just as the reports of sexual harassment at the President’s Dinner were being broadcast. In such a controversial area your conclusions are never going to please everyone. It’s probably not possible to balance: the desirable of people being open and honest about their sexuality; the desirability of communicating in a direct way with others about tastes and preferences; and the need to avoid images and actions which smack of sexual objectification of women’s (and indeed men’s) bodies. I disagreed with some of your points (for example, I found the Orange Dreamsicle picture frankly disturbing). I think that the current reappraisal of these issues are refreshing and necessary; I do disagree with some of the no-platforming initiatives currently taking place which seem to me to smack of censorship and the suppression of free speech.

    • Thanks for posting (and for reading). The no-platforming and safe spaces – inability to listen to views you don’t agree with in universities – are part of the wider context that made write this post. The other was that #JeSuisCharlie was used as the people saying it were simultaneously removing all images from websites and magazines that might be deemed offensive. This is why by default I’ve chosen to fight for a principal. I’m not actually bothered by what’s on pump clips and have no stake in the industry other than as a drinker. I’m currently digesting some articles recommended by Nicci Peet that might get into areas of the debate I’ve not considered. Out of interest, what would you say to a woman who liked that image for its playfulness? Because I’ve had that feedback.

  3. Has anyone else just read an article that says “I don’t think these images are sexist. Some people do, but they’re wrong.”?

    • I didn’t say anybody is wrong. I put in my opinion, in my view, personally etc throughout and explained why the images appeal to me. I’ve also referenced that other people don’t like them without attributing any judgment to their opinions. I respect them.

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