Earlier this month, we shared the story of London Mayor Sadiq Khan's ban on body-shaming advertisements. Reacting to a series of blatantly sexist advertisements from a dietary supplement company called Protein World, the ban was hailed as a victory for feminism. While it's nice to see issues pertaining to body positivity come closer to mainstream attention, it's worth thinking about the inadvertent consequences of these kinds of legislative moves.
Americans have a particularly idiosyncratic idea of censorship. Rarely do governmental agencies step in to obstruct speech (or advertisements) – although one could argue that organizations like the frequently-wrong-headed MPAA and FCC achieve similar goals. In fact, when censorship does occur in the US, it often works towards conservative or right-wing goals, with buzzwords like “family,” “decency,” or “American values” frequently coming into play. Even more rarely do we see government-sanctioned censorship from the left.
As far as London's advertisements go, the circumstances around said censorship are rather clear. And while the British have a different relationship to freedom of speech than Americans do, the idea behind limiting advertisements which feminists may deem inappropriate reeks of a kind of right-wing reactionary thought policing that feminists had previously fought against (see: the Pro-Porn feminist movement).
Protein World's advertisements were disgusting, no doubt – but they weren't violence-inciting or overtly hateful. In fact, most of advertising culture is equally as objectifying, misogynistic, sexist, and insultingly insipid – Protein World's posters were only slightly less veiled about it. How do we even begin to pick which advertisements cross a line, and which ones are more innocuous? Rather than focusing on individual commercials or companies, wouldn't it do us well to address the culture that creates the desire for such advertisements to begin with?
That may seem like an abstract solution to an abstract problem. But a bigger dilemma reveals itself upon closer examination of the situation at hand; the “solution” actually implemented doesn't actually solve anything. The censorship of these advertisements simply didn't work! The attention surrounding the controversial advertisements (from guerilla-style defacement of the ads to online campaigns leading to government action) actually increased the profits of Protein World. Similarly, Protein World's double-down on their insensitivity only attracted more like-minded customers and trolls.
The Streisand Effect remains a powerful force.
We shouldn't be un-critical of the rhetoric behind Khan's ban, either. “As the father of two teenage girls,” proclaimed Khan, “I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies.” This reductionist logic, which subtly insists that men should only care about women vis-a-vis their biological or social bonds to them, has been criticized before. Women are not just daughters, sisters, wives. They are people, full fledged human beings, without their relations to men.
This whole situation puts feminists in a lose-lose position: if we decide to ignore the blatant misogyny of companies like Protein World, advertising culture chauvinism won't go anywhere. But if we call attention to or attempt to ban these spots, we only draw more customers towards these nefarious companies. What to do?
Even more radical feminists suggest that popular discussions around representation, diversity, and body-policing are distractions from more important and dangerously politicized issues like access to healthcare and abortions or the continued practice of female genital mutilation worldwide. This hardline and more activist approach sees this entire discussion as participating in a dangerously shallow and insidious identity politics which keeps people from tackling more serious and important issues. Fair enough!
One can hope that feminists, in general, are working towards creating a more open future filled with less body-fascism. If this is the case, then companies like Protein World will change their tune in due time. But that hardly feels like a good enough answer.