Geekdom and the coding of advertising for sex and gender

I was inspired to spin thoughts about this post/link by @novium into a separate topic.

To start with, I should explain that I am genderqueer and aspie and more or less hostile to advertising and marketing generally. But because I don’t relate to the vast array of assumptions underlying most people’s experience of these, I always have lots of questions. To some, I will probably come off as being rather thick. But, like I said, I really have trouble relating to many things most seem to take for granted. I am sensitive to the problems, but I simply don’t assume much.

So, Basically We Are Screwed?
So far, this articles says “It makes totally sense to exclude women and to spread sexist messages, because it works.” Does this mean we are fucked? Does this mean, as long as companies want to make profit, women will get thrown under the bus by everyone?

I think the article made a lucid explanation of how and why marketing has tended towards sexist practices. But one aspect of this it glossed over was the question of why sexist practices should always seek to profit at the expense of women, specifically. To be clear, I do not approve of sexism towards anyone, including men. But the “bottom line” mentality would suggest that there is a vast, ignored demographic of women who are not marketed to. This would suggest that some of the campaigns which opt for sexist targeting towards males exclusively, could just as easily choose a sexist targeting of selling to women instead. After all, most people are women. So, why not?

This I think relates to criticism I have had of the “male gaze” principle. Not that it doesn’t exist, but that a corresponding female gaze is somehow an obvious impossibility. I have read feminist articles online even which go far as to say that even movies made exclusively by women and for women still somehow embody a male gaze, supposedly because somehow nobody can know what the female gaze would look like. This sounds suspiciously disempowering to me.

Sexuality versus Sexualization

Isn’t there a difference? Years ago, I often heard people describe things as being sexual. But most uses of this I encounter now replace it with the jargon of sexual ize. This seems to connote a sex-negative attitude, by implying that the topic of discussion is not innately sexual in itself, but was made to appear sexual through some act of artifice. To me, this seems to be a huge distinction. But of the hundreds of times I have asked people what they suppose the differences between the terms to be, I have yet to get one answer. Is your sexual identity or behavior something that you have always embodied? Or was it given to you by others? Does either outlook offer more agency?

Object/Subject versus Partners

How safe or realistic is it to assume that the average sexual relationship is not between willing partners? Wouldn’t it be solipsistic to frame them all as each person assuming that the other is an object? And even if many had such a depersonalizing attitude towards you, would you believe them?

How does this phenomenon differ with sex compared to, say, careers? Is everybody depicted in advertising with an easily recognizable function such as a carpenter, doctor, or cop instantly reduced to no longer being a person? How does this differ functionally from the role of being depicted as somebodys sexual partner? If it is normal to assume that every person has a sexual identity, does it really follow that some people are really more sexual than others, where this seems less overt? Does assuming that a person represented as having an overtly sexual appearance necessarily connote that they are exploited rather than empowered by this?

Referencing two pictures from the article here for illustration:

Sure, it says “for men”, which is rather sexist and corny. But does the photo re-enforce or contradict this? The woman appears to possess both the man and the game! So how/why are both the man and the game not the “objects”? Media criticism of these things often presumes an offensive double standard: if the man seems to possess the woman, he is “powerful” - but if the woman possesses the man, she is “needy”. But these conflicting contexts do not appear to be present in the ad, they are brought by the viewer! Why should anyone assume innate asymmetry here? Might the woman be “powerful”? Might the man be “needy”?

This one seems even more peculiar!

Here, not only is the man in the grip of women, but he has his body labelled with the name and legends of the product for sale! He IS the TMS 9900! He has electronic parts labelled as apparently being parts of his anatomy! Interpreting this, I can also perhaps see two women who desire a guy for his savvy computer buying skills (hey… it could happen). But visually, the man is the product, the “object”.

What seems to happen then, is that the adverts are coded with the intention of being sexist, and are interpreted as such. But why do people choose this particular coding, these associations? When there are easily available interpretations which can be seen as empowering either group, aren’t people (women!) more likely to intuitively identify with the ones which favor them? And if not, why? Does it help?


Wow! So… no other thoughts on this?

I’d think that with the intersection of tech, commerce, and feminism - BB would be the perfect place for such a discussion.

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I appreciate the thought you’ve put into framing this, so I’m sorry to let you down that I don’t have any useful thoughts of my own to contribute.

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I think you could be onto something, regarding people’s assumptions being the main factor in some circumstances… But the thing about assumptions is that you’re usually unaware that you’re making them, hence alternative interpretations aren’t so easily available as you suggest.

Things you don’t know are possible may as well be impossible, something more open-minded and imaginative folks probably find hard to allow for when considering how the average person thinks; marketing is a science that hits its mark because folks en masse are more predictable than the weather.


One way around this I have found is to simply operate as if one is obviously making assumptions. Doing so deliberately allows one to take it further. such as requiring several different explanations for everything. For example, it is much harder to get drawn into compulsive behaviors if you always make a list of the ten best reasons for and against any action. It doesn’t take much time or intelligence, simply the small discipline to think to do it.

I’d classify it as something that “works” as a waste of time. Not everything which works is worth doing. My definition of wealth is more interpretations, more perspectives, more ways of thinking. So if people are so similar, and encouraged to be similar, this is wealth they are being unnecessarily deprived of. This is partly the point of sharing a planet with billions of people! Not so that anybody can meet thousands of people who think the same way, which sounds more like a recipe for a narcissistic control mechanism. Knowledge is power, but not some mythical “power over others” which promises someone the benefits without self-mastery.

I flipped out years ago when I heard a YMO track (I Tre Merli) which had William Burroughs reading from “The Job” and describing quite simply the problem as I had understood it.

What I am here to learn is a new way of thinking.
There are no lessons and no teachers.
There are no books and no work to be done.
I do almost nothing.

So mock up a run of imaginary errands.
Now mock up some thinking you don’t have to do.
Select a person whose way of life is completely different from yours and mock up his thinking.

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Sexual, objectified, and sexualized are seemingly different concepts that have not been well-defined in critical circles. There, I said it. It seems to come down to “I’ll know it when I see it” and goes no further. But, that’s not a horrible criteria. Cultural context is rarely reducible, but it is not any less real. I know it when I see it often enough:

The contrast isn’t in the clothing, factually, the women in the video wear more. Yet it is abundantly clear to me that the depiction of women is far more sexualized to that of the men. This is the video I literally have this bookmarked for all the annoying discussions about about the depiction of female characters in comic books which have people point to scantily clad and spandexed male heroes as if it provides real counterpoint. I haven’t had occasion to use it yet, but its time will come.

Okay, so is it problematic? It’s sexual, the depiction of women is definitely sexualized. The men are depicted marginally, but as being strong and competent. Still is it wrong for a woman to be sexual? To identify as being physically-attractive and to celebrate sexual prowess? No. Do women watch that video and feel and identify those things? Probably not. Maybe some women, I certainly can’t speak for the gender with my particular combination of plumbing and cis-ness, but I doubt it’s generalizable to most women. Even though at least one of the artists in the video is a woman (The instrumental portion is by Exceeder- who’s not important in this discussion) she caters to the male gaze in this video. It’s for men to consume, and falls into a well-worn trope of women being consistently sexually “available” for the right man. The strong man, the competent man, the rich man, etc.

This gets into the whole social phenomenon where men “mold” themselves into their idea of the mythical ideal mate, and for men that try- it leads to frustration and disaffection. This is, ironically, part of the genesis of the men’s rights movement and the PUA community. The men in the video, although marginal, less represented, and not fully-developed as people, are not objectified–in large part because they do not represent an important part of the message (such as it is) in the video. They are largely tokens and shadows. While this dynamic can be an issue in its own right, such as the dearth of real and developed female characters in mainstream media, it’s not really the same as being objectified. A man watching the video disabuses himself of any notion of personhood on the part of the women in the video and sees them as convenient objects on which to inspire sexual fantasy. Again, always a problem? Maybe not. Sexual fantasy is healthy and it’s expedient in fantasy to dismiss the realities of hooking up or finding a date and skip right to sexual availability. But in the context of a society that consistently broadcasts this not as mere fantasy, but as a way of life? It’s suspect, at least. Often enough, we’re talking about a music video, or a magazine cover, or a movie poster, not erotica. Certainly there is a place for the erotic among these things, but it has become so commonplace that it’s less about being sex-negative and more about challenging it as what it is: Ideology.

Can it be interpreted differently? Yes. But we don’t live in a society of people who interpret things differently. We live in a society that shapes the way we interpret things from a young age. Can I interpret the English language as it is commonly spoken differently? Sure, but then I would have a hard time using it. I think your issue is that you take the range of possible interpretations to be superior to the range of likely interpretation with the ad you’re showing us. The man is “object” in one sense of the word, but in the sense of a broader social context in which the women and their sexual availability is the desired end, they are the objects. The man represents the competence and agency that retrieves the desired sexual result according to the formula as society teaches it:

Man+skills+wealth+etc.=Man who cannot be resisted by women, who have little autonomy when faced with these characteristics.

In reality, women are diverse and not simply “available” to the right combination of traits any more than men are (contrary to another social construct- all men are insatiable). If you want to understand coding, code-switching, and navigating gender, you cannot look at cultural artifacts and generate plausible and context-less interpretations and simply not be led astray. You have to consider the manner, time, and place within a culture the artifact exists in order to interpret it successfully.


Mandatory Zizek:

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