Today the poster is ripped away, haphazardly torn to reveal the subway sections wall. I know exactly which poster it had been, as I have passed through this subway tunnel three days in a row. The poster was some kind of show announcement picturing three women posed together on a chair looking “sexy” in that playboy bunny cookie-cutter way. Nothing particularly interesting about them, nothing particularly offensive, nothing particularly new or old or artistically compelling, just a poster, to which, it would seem, an art critic might have simply said: Bad lighting. Terrible costume design. Outdated make-up. Whatever.
But for some reason this poster had become the subject of vandalism, over the course of several days, unlike any other poster in this subway tunnel. The first time I saw it, I noticed that stickers had been placed over the bodies of the three women saying, “fight sexism,” and “end sexism.” I remarked on it because although the subway is full of posters advertising all kinds of shows—some cabaret in which the actors pictured have bunny years on and one not-trying-to-be-attractive guy is wearing baggy white underwear and a frown on his face; a poster for some new Brad Pitt film, picturing him walking out of a cloud of smoke or fog; another poster for a German musical duo, a man and woman, clothed in nothing particularly memorable —only this poster had garnered (political) attention. One could go through every poster in the subway tunnel and put some kind of artistic commentary on it—bad choice of font; 90’s aesthetic; Hollywood vibrato; absurd without being smart or ironic, etcetera. But for some reason this poster of the three women was the only poster that had been basically labeled “offensive” and “sexist.”
I support the words “fight sexism” and I believe that we should. I believe in guerilla action and non-violent protest and political art that challenges advertising. But I wonder if placing those words once again over the bodies of women isn’t to some degree barking up the wrong tree, or misleading a passing audience that would rather blame the women pictured than, say, look inwardly for the ways in which they themselves engage in sexist practice.
When I first saw the stickers, I had to think to myself, how do the people who put up the stickers on the bodies of those women know what the women in the picture feel like to be in the picture? Do those women feel exploited? Are they not earning enough? Would they rather be doing something else and feel stuck in this line of work? I myself am often posed in erotic positions or advertising an erotic show. I wouldn’t want my body to be stickered with words of someone who’d never even bothered asking me how I feel about the topic. These women are apparently the “victims” of sexism. And yet, they are also the victims of a (perhaps) well-meaning confusion—between sex and sexism?.
When I passed the poster the second day, I noticed that along with the stickers were now drawn mustaches and beards and devil horns, and the women’s eyes were blacked out, as though to suggest that posing in such a way is sexist because it is sexual or is sexist because they are sexualized—and these women themselves are devilish or ought to be punished for it. Now, I’m not suggesting that random graffiti is necessarily that well thought-out. I’m not suggesting that the people doing the drawing thought one way or another about it. But if they hadn’t, why had they chosen the bodies of these women as opposed to any other pictures in the tunnel? Isn’t their action somehow more sexist than the sexism they appear to be judging? Isn’t it just bolstering the undercurrent of the protest itself—that women’s bodies are disposable, punishable, should be marked and should be the only persons held accountable for what they see more largely as injustice?
On the third day, their bodies were torn in two, as the poster was ripped away from the wall in pieces, literally across the skin of these women. Whether the show is good or not, sexist or not, interesting or not, these women, who had likely made the photo shoot in order to bring people to their show, had lost their advertising space, thus, their public, thus, their potential for making money. Yes, I hyperbolize, but is this a less sexist situation for them? Will it force them to move onto other, apparently, less sexist jobs? Is this the outcome the protesters desire?
I can understand someone thinking, this show looks stupid—I don’t want to go to it. Or—I’m not interested in a show that is about women trying to be sexy in a cookie-cutter way. Or perhaps—I’m not interested in a show in which women try to be sexy or use sex in any way at all, whether it be artistically compelling or not. I can understand any of that. But I can’t understand the covering up or defacing women in the name of teaching others about sexism.
It’s just a microcosm of how society looks on at girls getting naked. It’s not that this act of vandalism particularly bothered me, it’s that it symbolizes, in its own art and defacement, exactly what is wrong with many of our current critiques of sexism—always on the bodies of women, on the backs of women, across our faces and vaginas.
It seems too simplistic of a critique to say, those who try to look sexy are being sexist or are victims of sexism. But then, what are the causes of sexism and how does one effectively protest it, point it out, find it illustrated in advertisement? What does sexism look like? How is it visually portrayed?
If sexism is a product of the nuances of our society, as I would argue, a product of the entire capitalist regime, then with all the other posters in the subway tunnel, why are none of them marked with the same anger, the same hatred? Because they happen to be dressed “provocatively” (the markers of sex), these women are wearing the all too obvious marks of what has been societally conflated with “sexism.” The visual seems so clear—too clear. But true sexism, feelings of disempowerment and lack of power, have to do with things much more subtle than bad fetish clothing bought at the costume shop.
Presumably it was three different groups that contributed to what happened to those posters– organized activists who did the stickering, bored subway loiterers who did the drawing, and perhaps workers who were clearing the mess that finally tried to tear the images away. But if, at the very least, the activists were interested in pointing to a nuanced analysis of sexism, why not place ”fuck sexism” stickers across the face of Brad Pitt, or another male actor, with whom they have just as little knowledge, and who more than likely has at one time played in a stereotype-filled role about heteronormative masculinity? Why not stick protest statements across the discount grocery store that pays its mostly female cashiers too little, and the growers in the fields even less? Why always on the bodies of women?