L sent me a photo of this ad from the back of this month’s Jits. Magazine, thinking (rightfully) that I’d be interested to see it.
I don’t talk about gender issues in the abstract on this blog very often, not because I’m not interested in them or because I don’t see them, but more because they are so prevalent and so massive that starting to talk about them always results in a cascade of gender-discussion-nonsense that ends with frustration. But since the sociology and cultural meaning of advertisement is one of my favorite subjects I figured I could go after this one. A brief note, before I begin: if you leave weird, creepy, disgusting, or threatening comments, they’ll be deleted. Otherwise, I welcome discussion.
I’ve been sitting on this advertisement for more than a week, trying to pin down exactly what’s wrong with it. At first I thought it was the image, but that wasn’t entirely it. I’m not of the feminist school of thought that believes that any kind of exposure of women’s bodies is automatically sexist objectification. I understand the philosophy, but it’s not one that I personally subscribe to; that left me wondering why this ad in particular left such a terrible taste in my mouth.
I decided, after a lot of consideration, that it’s because of something that I’ve come to recognize in another form, what one woman called “The Daughter” books– why are there so many popular books out that have a title that sounds something like “The _____’s Daughter” or “The ________’s Wife?” Where are the husband books? The son books? They don’t exist, because we don’t feel the need, as a culture, to define men in terms of something else. To define men in terms of someone else. It’s enough to be a man: you get to be the time-traveler, or the bone-setter, or the baker, or the apothecary, the general, the taxi driver, etc. But there is this need to define women in terms of someone else: they’re the daughter or wife of the man who has an identity.
This is very pervasive in our culture, but it’s also very invisible to most people. When we speak of rape victims, for instance, the narrative is “she’s someone’s daughter/sister/wife/mother/etc.” No. She is a person, and that is why rape is bad: not because she is related to a man in some way. When I’m out at a bar, I can’t tell a creep to leave me alone because I’m not interested: the only way to truly shake a creep off is to tell him that I have a boyfriend. My desire to be left alone is not enough; the only way my rejection is accepted is if it’s because I’m already property of another individual in possession of a penis. That’s what’s going on in this advertisement, and that’s why it continued to bother me.
The woman in this ad doesn’t have any agency. Despite clearly being an athlete (a teammate of the man in the ad?)– you don’t get a butt like that from a starvation diet, people– the only important thing is what she won’t do. She’s defined by this, these restrictions that she has placed on him. Like the women in the daughter books, she is defined (within the scope of this advertisement) by the things of value she can do for the man in the ad.
I can find a hundred examples of this, from vintage ads:
And finally, my personal favorite, the stupid misogynistic ad that manages to only have a picture of a hamburger:
At this point, most of my male readers are probably going, “Jesus Christ, this chick bitches a lot over nothing. Those ads are nothing like the Defense Soap ad. Women, amiright? So emotional.” Okay, maybe I’m projecting and joking a little bit. Regardless, I know that most of my male readers aren’t entirely sold on this theory yet, so let me expand a bit further.
All of these ads treat women as beings whose worth is dependent upon what they can give to the men in their lives. The vintage ads, as goofy and ridiculous as they seem today, are actually less insidious than the modern ads, as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t look at advertisements with a discerning eye, then it’s easy to miss the cultural mores that are being enforced.
Let’s perform a little bit of a thought experiment. Let’s change the text of this ad: “They’ll do cauliflower, but they won’t do ringworm.” Here’s the image again, for reference:
Why does this so radically change the meaning of this ad? Because it puts them on even footing. It gives her agency– she decided to “do” cauliflower, just as much as he decided to “do” cauliflower. She’s no longer a groupie, now she’s his equal, deciding autonomously to participate in whatever shenanigans are about to go on in that shower (?) with him. It changes from the old, time-worn narrative of “women hold the keys to sex, men have to jump through hoops to get them to give it up” to a narrative where they both mutually decided that some frisky times were appropriate in the gym showers (for reference: NOT APPROPRIATE, GUYS). It changes the meaning of the ad from “buy Defense Soap! Get bitches!” to “be clean! Don’t get ringworm! Be badass! Have sex with attractive people!” I have to say I like that second message a lot better.
I can’t say I’m angry, or particularly surprised that advertisements like this exist in the jiu jitsu world. This problem is not one that is limited to jiu jitsu, as I’ve demonstrated with the other examples here; it’s systemic. Here’s the thing, though– it would be so easy to avoid ads like this. It would be so easy to hire a copywriter with half a brain who could look at these ads and say, “Hey, you know what? We can do better than this. We can make a name for ourselves by doing better than this.” After all, research does seem to suggest that sex doesn’t necessarily sell, especially not to women.
I don’t have any kind of association or feeling one way or another about Defense Soap. I like their body wash. It’s tingly! But there are other companies out there that make soap designed for grapplers, so… sorry, Defense Soap. I’ll do nudity, but I won’t do sexism.
If you have a problem with the way Defense Soap is advertising, you can find them here and let them know; I have no affiliation with Defense Soap.