It’s coming up to Women’s Month in South Africa (August), where we get to listen to pointless speeches by officials promising that, this time, something will be done about sexism and misogyny in South Africa. We also get to watch private businesses try to make us forget that Women’s Day in South Africa commemorates the courage and resistance of women, particularly black women, and try to cash in by selling us more crap we don’t need while portraying Women’s Day as some sort of mixture of Mothers’ Day and Valentines’ Day.
Marie Claire decided to cash in early this year, and got 18 block-headed (but perhaps well-meaning) celebrities to sell some magazines and model some clothing by Dumond and Fabiani. Oh, and the celebrities were men. Their glorified photo shoot was sold thus:
“To honour women’s month in August, we invited 18 local celebrities to walk in our shoes – literally. As they learned to balance and strike a pose through their discomfort, the shoes became a representation of the experience of being a woman. And with each (sometimes painful) step, the men found a new understanding, appreciation and empathy for women.”
Oh, where does one start?
Let’s start with this: being a woman, and therefore being at significantly increased risk for violence, has nothing to do with high heels. The use of a visible symbol of femininity places the emphasis on femininity as a performance, as something somewhat frivolous, and rooted in vanity and trifles. If someone wants to understand what it means to be a woman in this country, wearing high heels is not going to get you there. The daily experience of living with the risk of violence in our homes and outside of them is not like the “discomfort” men face when wearing high heels.
Secondly, it places the emphasis on exactly the wrong place: femininity. Being a woman, or more accurately, presenting as a woman to the world is what places us at such high risk (this includes trans women). But the problem is not with femininity. It’s with masculinity. Yes, I know, it’s not considered appropriate to place responsibility for violence against women where it belongs: with men. Charlize Theron tried in 1999 in two-minute anti-rape broadcasts on television, where she urged men to take a stand against sexual violence. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) pulled the TV spots on the basis that they were offensive to men by stereotyping them as being rapists or at least being complacent and therefore complicit. Of course, the ASA routinely determines that sexist jokes on TV are fine, as long as they are focused on women, but one little TV spot placing men at the centre of solutions to ending violence against women, and all hell breaks loose.
Get celebrities to challenge toxic ideas of masculinity: masculinity as violent, as aggressive, as penetrative, as better and stronger then femininity, and then we might have something to talk about. Of course, that kind of talk doesn’t sell magazines and doesn’t really fit with the kind of “fun feminism” being promoted by the likes of Marie Claire, where a publicity stunt masquerades as transformative activism. Marie Claire’s attempt to sell us manure and tell us its roses is not improved by their decision to include at least two celebrities known for their sexist jokes, Gareth Cliff and Siv Ngesi.
If men really want to try addressing gender-based violence, start with one of the root causes: disdain for women as an inherent part of masculinity. That means, you don’t get to make sexist jokes, or laugh at the sexist jokes of others. It means you talk to other men about violence, and challenge them about how they talk about women. It means you make it uncomfortable for them to display their contempt for women and femininity in your presence. In other words, do something other than nod your head sagely when hearing another story of violence against women, and mutter about the state of the world. This campaign does nothing to encourage men to actually take action – “taking a stand” is just another bullshit euphemism for doing nothing.
EDIT: Since posting this, Marie Claire has posted two responses. The first is by the editor, and says nothing of any value, entrenching my belief that this was not a well-thought out campaign. The intention was enhancing a brand, building on the backs of women, and a long history of struggle against violence. In response to the specific concern regarding the inclusion of DJ Euphonik, accused of domestic violence (the charges were later dropped), the editor writes: “I chose DJ Euphonik precisely because he had this shadow hanging over his head; he and I discussed it at length and I believed it would make a powerful statement about how wrong gender-based violence is. I feel, in retrospect, we should have made the reason we included him clear from the start.” Apparently, including someone accused of domestic violence shows that domestic violence is bad… or something. The remainder of the response can be boiled down to: “yes, we read your criticisms, but instead of responding thoughtfully, we’re going to complain that you’re failing to recognise our good intentions – can’t you see we’re trying?!”.
The second response is by the Marie Claire team, and is much shorter. It acknowledges that the campaign was ill-conceived, that the inclusion of DJ Euophonik was a mistake (though no word on the other serial misogynists included in the campaign), and commits Marie Claire to doing better. There isn’t really any engagement with the criticism of the campaign, but maybe they will follow up with a longer response, once they have had time to reflect.