Gender and advertising- mainstream marketing or pure propaganda?

The issue of representing marginalised groups in advertising is not new. After all, one only has to consider that cultural diversity in Western adverts is a relatively new phenomenon. But over the Christmas break (after reading quite a number of women’s magazines) I got to thinking about the way in which (at worst) gender and sexual diversity is vastly under-represented in the media, and (at best) representations that are made stick out as un-integrated attempts at tapping into the pink dollar (for example, you may have seen this infamous French McDonald’s ad).

This issue became very apparent to me after reading one of my nothing-else-to-do glossies (InStyle), which featured a NIVEA campaign called 100 years of love all about “celebrating the Australian families, friends and couples who’ve entrusted their skin to NIVEA for a lifetime of care” (cue sentimental music). The ad included an Indian family, a group of middle aged women friends, and a thirty-something couple (whose photo was accompanied by the tag line “NIVEA Loves Couples”).

…compared to a typical DIVA one

The NIVEA loves couples ad..

On closer inspection, NIVEA has in the past, run a “very successful” campaign to target a specifically gay audience. So it got me wondering- while the 100 years of love campaign is yet another reinforcement of heteronormative ideas of love and family, it also presumably says something about the particular market that buys InStyle- so I’m assuming (if NIVEA has done their research) this is predominately straight women.

Funnily enough one of my other summer mags- the UK’s DIVA magazine, dedicated to all things lesbian and bisexual- only featured ads depicting or related to woman-on-woman action. This is hardly surprising as I imagine that the readership of DIVA is made up of women with non-straight inclinations. But while it’s all well and good to expect that advertising holds a mirror up to the market, I long for the day when that means that campaigns using the words family and love involve increasingly diverse representations of sexuality and gender so much so that no one blinks an eye (much like I didn’t pay attention to the fact that the family represented in the NIVEA campaign was Indian until I sat down to write this post). If not, I think that this marks magazines like InStyle as exclusively straight. I wonder if this is ok, given that DIVA isn’t for straight girls- but then again DIVA puts it’s position front and centre, whereas InStyle surreptitiously masquerades as just another “normal” women’s magazine.

While I could go on for hours about the issue of the commercialisation of “gay” (and the Velvet Mafia, etc), instead, in the spirit of groups such as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) that give out awards each year to companies that offer positive portrayals of LGBT in advertising, here’s my pick of the number one best and worst representations made in 2011-

The spread from the Vogue edition

BEST: Goes to The 2011 September edition of Vogue magazine (USA) which featured several advertisements relating to gay and lesbian issues- which comes as no suprise given editor Anna Wintour’s outspoken support for gay marriage. The most exciting part of this edition for me was the style section on weddings which featured a lesbian couple dressed in white and an invitation that included the brides’ names as Clarissa and Sarah- without any specific mention to gay marriage.

WORST: Hands down has to be the Libra ad for tampons called “drag it”, which has caused some outrage given it’s equation that having periods = being a “real” woman (and although arguably the title suggests that the person in the video is a drag queen and not a trans woman, the ad still has a particular position about womanhood that I for one find pretty offensive!).

UPDATE: Libra have issued an apology and have stated that the ad will no longer air in New Zealand or Australia. Despite divided opinion in the trans community about the ad (abjectly transphobic vs. a funny and positive representation), the most depressing thing has been seeing the plethora of transphobic responses on the Libra Facebook page.

Christmas traditions: the “modern” family model

I recently read a great piece in by Benjamin Law on the trials and tribulations of Christmas in a post-nuclear (family) world of divorce, sex before marriage and gay partners (you can read Law’s article from the Griffith Review here). It got me thinking about my own experiences of Christmas and the emphasis placed on family for this particular holiday.

From memory I have only experienced  one “proper” family Christmas on my mum’s side, when I was still in primary school. My very limited memories of this involve trifle (good) and fighting (bad), and I’m pretty certain the family gave up after this one rather unpleasant attempt. Growing up solo with my mother, a self described “pagan/wiccan“, meant that Christmas was pretty understated (that is, when we finally started to celebrate it- when I started school I heard that I was missing out on a lot of capitalist present-receiving shenanigans). So Christmas time in our family was more about celebrating the solstice, getting out into the sunshine, onto the beach and hanging out with all of the other coastal orphans and odd bods. Christmas was a blip on the radar in our house, and overlooking the delights of the anti-capitalist traditions my mum was trying to indoctrinate me with, I longed for beliefs in santa and waking up to pillow cases full of presents.

When I started dating in high school however, I realised that I could be adopted into other people’s families and finally revel in traditional Christmas festivities. I’ve done this for many years, and have always been so pleasantly surprised at how welcoming people are to the strangers that happen to be sleeping with a member of their family. Viewing other people’s Christmases finally allowed me to realise that no family really fits the “nuclear” set up after all- while I had wanted to go back to some 1950s family portrait at Christmas time, it turns out that everyone’s households are always a bit more complicated than that.

Soon the whole world will be able to celebrate the joy of Christmas in summer time- happy climate change!

I look forward to the day when extended ideas of family exceed current TV representations, such as seen on Modern Familywhich can’t help but stay in the model of family as meaning parents + children. Whether those parents be “traditional”, divorced or a gay- it’s still a model based on child rearing and stable marriage-like relationships. What I found out from my Christmas-crashing is that families are diverse groupings, often a patchwork of extended kin and partners: ex-es, in-laws, step-persons, friend-lings and orphan-nomads.

So I hope that you all have a safe and merry solstice- I’ll be at the beach with some adopted family if anyone needs me.

You and me could write a panromance

"Ace" is a term often adopted by people that identify with an asexual orientation

After all my talk of limerence and pansexuality, I’ve been thinking more about romance in relation to sexual orientation. Turns out the asexual community is all over this topic, employing the term “panromance” to describe the ability to have romantic feelings for all number of people, not dictated by the gender binary. Probably the greatest quote ever on this subject comes from Urban Dictionary, that gives an example of panromantic in a sentence:

“I don’t get it. Bretta is totally hot, and she’ll date anything, but she’s still a virgin.”
“That’s because she’s panromantic asexual”.

The term panromantic has been embraced by many self-identified asexuals, also known as “aces”. So what does being ace mean, and how does asexuality and panromance trouble our ordinary notions of the importance of sex in relationships? While Wikipedia defines asexuality as a non-orientation that entails having no interest in sexual activities, AVENwiki (a wiki made by the Asexual Visibility and Education Network) describes asexuality as a particular kind of orientation, distinct from practices of abstinence, celibacy, etc. While asexuality is often described in terms of lacking (lack of sexual interest, etc), the ace community reminds us that they are still interested in having meaningful human relationships and deep romances.

However (as usual) there are some people that insist that asexuality is just another example of “not queer enough”. While I can see why some people might get defensive about sex and sluthood in a world where sex has been simultaneously commodified and monogamised, I also think that the asexual not-interested-in-sex orientation is completely valid (and, after all not really that heterosexually hegemonic when you consider that the reproductive family unit is promoted as the foundation of society). The confounding of asexuality with being anti-sex seems commonplace. But just because someone would rather eat cake than have sex, doesn’t mean they want to stop other people from relishing in the activity.

Cake- a symbol often used by aces to describe pleasure in things other than sex (e.g. "Sex? Nah, let's just eat cake")

What I like about the way asexuality embraces romance and other ways of understanding attraction, is the reminder that it’s not all about sex. Like this entry on affectional orientation states, romance and sex are all part of a larger fabric of human relationality. Embracing terms like panromance (or polyromance, biromance, demisexuality, etc!) even if you aren’t an ace, broadens our ability to conceptualise our own orientations and experiences, and can help us to build a multi-faceted self-understanding rather than a straight and narrow approach. So let’s embrace the A in the alphabet soup- we should sit down and share some cake together sometime, we might just learn something new about ourselves in the process.

Flicking the switch – is flexibility at the top (and bottom) of the postmodern agenda?

A filmic representation of the dominant/passive binary

Today at an end of year lunch gathering I briefly mentioned my word discovery of the day – “switch”. The term is part of BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Sadism/Masochism) lingo and refers to the idea of alternating between a top/active/dominant position and a bottom/obedient/passive position. My description was: switch is to top and bottom as bisexual is to lesbian and gay. My point was not to perpetuate a view of switch and bisexuality as more indecisive or indeterminate positions (as is often levelled at bisexuality), but rather to see these identifiers as caught up in a possible in-between space that language has been trying to catch up with (see also, pansexuality).

My description of switch got me questioning its connection with the concept of flexibility. I wondered if switch, bisexuality and other supposed in-betweens could be considered to be more flexible positions- not in the derogatory sense of being easy or undecided, but rather, as potentially more open or adaptive? I realised almost instantly that this would be a problematic assumption to make. This line of argument would seem to necessarily privilege switch and bisexuality over other orientations, inclinations or preferences, and I would therefore be making (what I would like to call) a flexibility fallacy.

I realised that the problematic I had encountered relates to a book I read earlier this week, by queer theorist Judith “Jack” Halberstam called In a Queer Time and Place- which focuses on the tension between transgression and conformity that exists around accounts of queer. Halberstam argues that there is a “postmodern fantasy of flexibility” being promoted, that serves to exclude some ways of identifying from a postmodern agenda- given postmodernism’s apparent obsession with all things indeterminate. Halberstam’s point makes me wonder whether my initial suturing of switch onto a “flexible” dynamic was a bi-product of my subconscious postmodern assumptions.

On that note (of the danger of possible postmodern misreadings), I’ll leave you with this (potentially) BDSM-esque song:

Limerence: the key to sexual orientation?

Every day it seems that I am introduced to a new term related to sex, gender, sexuality or gender expression – which serves as a reminder to me of the complexity of human sexuality. Today the word is “limerence“, probably the most poetic term encountered during my week. While “girlfag” might spring to mind a grunged-out beat poetry cafe, “limerence” smacks of English romantics sitting on benches under lime-tree bowers.

When it comes down to it, limerence is a classy name for the word “crush“. Apparently first described by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in the late 1970s (and not in the 18th Century as I had lovingly imagined), limerence describes that anxious/exciting period of time when you can’t stop thinking about someone – also known as having a heavy dose of love blindness or seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses. The “symptoms” include: fantasies and constant thoughts about your Limerent Object, self doubt and rejection fears, feelings of uncertainty versus ones of hope, all those embarrassing physical factors like literally not being able to talk, and a desire for partnership (i.e. not just sexual attraction).

This last aspect of limerence got me thinking about how this idea might relate to our understanding of sexual orientation. Turns out that the font of all knowledge (i.e. Wikipedia) gives a pretty interesting definition of sexual orientation as: “an enduring pattern of attraction – emotional, romantic, sexual, or some combination of these – to the opposite sex, the same sex, both, or neither, and the genders that accompany them” (note: this definition does not account for pansexuality). But what about those that claim polyamory as a sexual orientation? How could a poly disposition be differentiated from other orientations if we use the wiki definition? The answer might be limerence.

Those experiencing limerence may appear wistful

Lawrence Mass’ 1990 work, Dialogues of the Sexual Revolution, includes a conversation with controversial sexologist John Money regarding the relationship between limerence and sexuality. In this interview, Money claims that limerence (as described by the symptoms above- fantasies, desire to partner up, etc) has more to do with our orientations than pure sexual desire. This rings true for the consideration of polyamorous orientation – which is described as the ability to have strong feelings for more than one person and/or ethically maintain more than one partnership at a time. When faced with the concept of polyamory, many people respond with, “I could never do that” – perhaps non-poly people can have attraction to someone else while partnered, but cannot maintain limerence for more than one person? After all, one commonly noted “cure” is finding a new Limerent Object…so maybe the key to poly orientation is the ability for simultaneous-limerence.

Here’s a video exploring limerence and first crushes (lovely):

Not quite girlfags: Kylie Minogue and femme-queer identity

Kylie: gay icon

Recently, I was at a party where a Kylie Minogue CD was on rotation (I think it might have been Ultimate Kylie), much to the enjoyment of one of my femme friends. This got us talking about the “gay” icons that we enjoy like old Madonna and Lady Gaga, our love of the colour pink and our preference for a queer rather than straight description of ourselves. Following this, we considered the notion that maybe we could identify as being gay men in women’s bodies.

I wondered if such an identity descriptor was already in existence, and it was this that led me to the term “girlfag“- which refers to women that identify as being sexually attracted to gay men and/or gay subculture. I also discovered that several (straight) stars have described themselves as being “a gay man in a woman’s body” (for example, Posh Spice and Mila Kunis, though note: neither of them use the term girlfag!). On reflection of this sentiment however, I realised that it was somewhat problematic. Mainly, the trope of “trapped in the wrong body” is commonly cited by transgender people, who report gender dysphoria. Considering this, it wouldn’t be good if the expression my friend and I favoured was read as an offensive parody of trans identities. However, even if we nuanced our statement to reflect that we were akin to gay men in women’s bodies but that this didn’t impact upon our gender presentation, there are still further complications. Basically making this claim about our identity would entail making a parallel claim about what it is to be a gay man, which is therefore not cool on the reinforcing stereotypes stakes.

Despite these issues, I still think that there is some merit to the girlfag positioning. Basically my friend and I were reflecting a desire for queering our supposed girly-ness. Mapping our love for certain feminine things onto a gay paradigm allowed us to queer our femininity. I have always felt that there are things that I love that align with classic gay iconography (but then again this might be because there has been a lot more said about gay icons than lesbian, bisexual or other ones). And certainly the idea that I had more in common with a flamboyant gay man than a straight girl would ring true for me (for example, I once took a date home and played her the best-of CD “The Magic of Doris Day”, which didn’t really set the lesbian tone I was hoping for…).

So, maybe we’re not quite girlfags, but then again maybe we can embrace our “stereotypically-gay” tastes as part of a new lesbian/bi/pan dynamic of queer femininity. I hope so.

Marriage “the end of [gay] history”?

I came across this great ad (that has gone viral) by Australian grassroots protest group GetUp! on the website Lesbian Dad. The ending is very moving, but bittersweet given the recent decision of the Australian Labor Party to allow a conscience vote on gay marriage, rather than incorporating a change of stance on the issue into the core party platform (this means that the bill to reform the Marriage Act is likely to get vetoed by the opposition when it comes to Parliament).

My response to this ad, and to the issue of gay marriage more generally is always one of support for reforms to the current law to remove any discrimination. I do however acknowledge the thoughts of those within GLBTQIQ circles that are vehemently against the concept of gay marriage. And this ad (after bringing tears to my eyes) got me thinking- just how can this issue be negotiated in a way that both removes discrimination based on sexual orientation, but that doesn’t detract from other political action around issues of sex, gender and sexuality. My biggest fear is that gay marriage may already be viewed as an “end of history” moment, where marriage is seen as the final marker of the equality battle. In fact, this article published in The Guardian today welcomes a “post-gay” future.

Damn straight

While many gay and lesbian people may rejoice in the possibility of marriage, many “non-heteronormative” others may find themselves left by the wayside when it comes to collective action (such as marriage within the polyamorous community- though they have noted that gay marriage would be a significant step toward possible poly marriage in the future). But the issue of “assimilation” runs deeper than the ability to win political gains- it’s a matter of the direction in which that change is won. A world in which a conservative ideology of marriage and “family values” is envisioned as the ideal end point for all relationships is concerning, because it overlooks and subsumes difference and different ways of “doing gay”. When Jane Lynch presented How I Met Your Mother star Neil Patrick Harris with the LA Gay and Lesbian Centre award earlier this year, she proclaimed that Harris and his partner had, “created the most stunning gay American family portrait“.

My hope is that with every “win” on the board we can stop and acknowledge the power of the political, and think about the way in which our new “norms” might affect those left behind.

DIY paper your nails with a “Mardi Gras” opinion piece

Take one great story and memorialise it on your fingertips

I recently discovered a great new twist on manicuring – newspaper nails. No doubt this has been around for centuries and I am only just getting on the bandwagon. I decided that if I was going to put print on my nails I might as well make it a little bit political, even if no one else would notice. So here’s how you too can have crazy and mildly subversive nails too:

1. Find a great story or opinion piece in a newspaper that you have lying around and would probably chuck out otherwise. I chose this one.

You could theoretically use any colour of the rainbow for this trick

2. Paint your nails some kind of base colour. I chose white but you could really use any kind of base colour if black ink will be visible on it. Wait till a few coats of the base colour are dry.

3. Dip your first finger in a little bit of alcohol. Apparently people use rubbing alcohol for this, but I found that if you have spare gin lying around, that also works completely well.

I used Tanqueray, but any high proof alcohol will do. I guess.

4. While your finger is still wet with the alcohol, take a small section of your chosen op-ed, etc and place it on top of your nail, rub it down smoothly and hold it in place. The alcohol should bring the ink off the page onto your finger. Oh the miracle of chemistry!

5. Remove the paper after about thirty seconds and the ink should be left on there (albeit backwards). Let this dry and then paint with some clear lacquer.

The finished product. Perfect protest material.

6. And with that you should have the amazing science of fingernail newspaper art complete. While people may or may not be politically moved by the backwards small print newspaper article on your fingertips, at least you’ll know that you have captured something important.

Here’s some nails I prepared earlier —>

I like that my middle finger says “queer mardi gras” backwards. And that’s really all it’s about in the end.

Sydney [née Gay and Lesbian] Mardi Gras: Really?


The new "Mardi Gras" logo: I smell a heteronorm

There is some disenchantment within GLBTQIQ communities over the 2012 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras’ attempt to be “inclusive”. There has been some media coverage of the issue and  you can join the Occupy Mardi Gras Facebook group here. Some are questioning the step toward heterosexual assimilation inclusion that the organisers have now cemented through the re-naming (read their justification here). The Mardi Gras has a history of discrimination within GLBTQIQ ranks. The name “Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras” never really captured the alphabet soup (and admittedly, neither does the acronym that I am using here), and it wasn’t long ago that the likes of trans, bisexual and intersex people had to pass a “gay threshold” just to come to the after party. However, the new name change does nothing to embrace plurality as such- as some commentators have pointed out, why not put “Pride” at the front of the Mardi Gras title?

What I find most off-putting about the current re-branding shenanigan is the new symbol that has been chosen (to replace sit alongside the iconic opera-house-esque logo before it), which to me, REEKS of something like this —>

The new "Eternity" vision for Sydney: let's all move to the 'burbs shall we?

Don’t get me wrong- I’m all for “Gay” Marriage, but I’m also for embracing polyamory and other pursuits – which warrant inclusivity in the Mardi Gras celebration – that are not at all captured by the new sterile and clean cut graphic. Polyamorous people might even agree that their widely used symbol has been parodied and given a whole new meaning.The new “infinity hearts” reminds us of tiered cakes, string quartets and the bridal march- where are the whips, orgies and all manner of queer fantasy machines in that?

Pansexuality: because bisexuality is so passé?

Pansexuals strike back

When I talk to people about gender and sexuality, a lot of people tell me that they “don’t fit into any category of sexuality”. Then I tell them about pansexuality, and I usually get an “oh, right. That’s what I am”.

Pansexuality describes a sexual orientation wherein a person has the ability to be attracted to a diverse range of people across sex and gender spectrums. Pansexuals describe their attraction as different from bisexuality, which only considers the gender binary- if you are bisexual, by definition you are attracted to either men or women. Thus it is often claimed that pansexuals are “gender blind” (though some pansexuals would argue that this is not the case- sex and gender may play a role in attraction, but their sexual orientation doesn’t rule anybody out because of their sex or gender presentation).

While academia seems to be running to catch up, some of the most interesting perspectives on pansexuality come from YouTube posts like this. What seems startlingly obvious about the presence of pansexual self-proclaimers on the internet, is their age. While I’m sure that with the evolution of the term into more popular usage there will be more and more people of all ages that adopt the category to describe their own orientation – but for now, it seems that (overwhelmingly) Generation Z is embracing the idea.

The pan flag

It will be interesting to see how this identity discourse will pan out. What effect will pansexuality as an accepted and well known sexual orientation have on our views on sexuality’s relationship with the gender binary in the first place?

What’s great about pansexuality is that it allows a new way of thinking about desire and love, that is (apparently) outside of gender. Though, I do find the pansexuality vs bisexuality debate a little concerning (our sexuality is better than your sexuality- really?). Admittedly there are both those asserting their pansexuality and those reclaiming bisexuality in the face of the new pansexual discourse.

After all, I can’t help but wonder whether some people currently identifying as bisexual meant something closer to pansexual all along?