God's Politics

Okay, I may be a PC thug. I care less about good intentions – and more about the effects on the targets of those intentions. Not only am I offended when well-meaning white people patronizingly and redundantly call highly-educated black people holding public office “articulate,” I’m also offended when women’s bodies are decapitated and covered with violent slogans to fight breast cancer. (Not literally decapitated – just sliced and diced in the manner perfected by the advertising industrial complex to make sure you focus on the body parts that are really important to them – the parts that don’t talk or think.)

But, for the record, let me be absolutely clear: Just because I think this anti-breast cancer ad is bad, I am not pro-cancer.

I walk past this bus shelter ad every day on the way to work, and knew that I couldn’t be the first person to be troubled by the combination of its sexually provocative pose and violent words. Another DC blogger, techne, describes an experience of the ad similar to mine:

I first saw the ad from across the street. Squint and you’ll get an idea: a young female torso with a heckuva lot of violent words splashed across it. I didn’t see anything indicating what the ad was about until I had crossed the street. It got my attention, so I guess it’s a good ad. But it did so by making me think about violence towards women. Is that really what they want out of their ad campaign, do you think? …

As both a feminist and a photographer, this ad’s goals and its implementation could be a LOT more aligned than they are, and could be far more pro-female. The full text (as opposed to just the text that’s readable from a distance) tries to create a vibe of edgy aggression around the fight against breast cancer, and aims it at younger women. Well, here’s a suggestion: to create an edgy aggressive vibe that will engage young women, show a young woman doing something edgy and aggressive. Don’t use a woman’s body as a passively comely billboard for violent words. [emphasis mine]

The full text of the ad, visible when you’re standing about three feet away:

When we get our hands on breast cancer, we’re going to PUNCH IT, STRANGLE IT, KICK IT, SPIT ON IT, CHOKE IT, AND PUMMEL IT UNTIL IT’S GOOD AND DEAD. Not just horror movie dead, but really, truly dead. And then we’re going to tie a pink ribbon on it.

And am I a hypocrite or dupe for reproducing the ad in question on this blog? Maybe – though I’ve been careful not to mention the organization responsible for these ads, because that would merely reward the geniuses who decided that “edgy” and “chesty” would get more attention. But just because I am choosing not to promote this particular anti-breast cancer organization, I repeat: I am not pro-cancer. To prove it, here’s a link to the top-rated cancer charities according to the American Institute of Philanthropy, which rates organizations on transparency and financial responsibility – not politics. I encourage you to support them. (Conveniently, the organization that sponsored this ad isn’t even on the list … hmmmm.)

And if you think raising breast cancer awareness is a laudable end that justifies the questionable means, please reconsider. Sinking to this form of communication is, as techne suggests, negligently uncreative and lazy on the part of the agency who created them and the organization that paid for them (with money raised from donors whose attention is caught by eye-catching campaigns, ahem). If it’s cultural pollution when objectified bodies are exploited to sell beer, clothes, diets, or dating services (yes, we’ve noticed some of those Beliefnet-hosted ads that we would prefer not frame our blog) then it’s cultural pollution when it’s used to sell cancer awareness.

Am I overreacting? As some have suggested with Sen. Biden’s comments last week, is intent what matters most? Or do words and images have power beyond their surface intent – power that folks whose job it is to use them wisely must carefully wield, and immediately repent when legitimately challenged – and not just offer a non-apology apology? (Again, with fear and trembling I invoke James 3:1-12.)

And why am I wasting time picking on “good” people instead of the “real” bigots like Virginia State Representative Frank Hargrove, or real pornographers like Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie and Fitch? Because though the worst offenders should also be challenged, I want legislators with civil rights records like Joe Biden and organizations that claim to empower women to do a better job at what they claim to be about, for all of our sakes. And when it comes to dismantling racism or sexism, we can all do better.

Ryan Beiler is the Web Editor for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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