December 02, 2007

When I argue with my screen I gesture as though it can hear me.

Via Feministing I see that Amnesty International is running a new ad campaign against female "circumcision"* using sewn-up roses as the eye-catching imagery. You can see larger images here and here.

It's an interesting approach to an ad campaign. Obviously it's visually striking. Also obviously, it's kind of an overused symbol and one that's been made into all manner of creepy ideas and phrases. This is discussed pretty well in the comments on the Feministing post.

The other thing that's discussed very well in comments is: these pictures are still pretty, and that is a problem for the ad campaign. Obviously it's a matter of opinion and personal aesthetic or cultural aesthetic or whatever aesthetic you care to apply, but when the purpose of the image is to make people upset and motivated to act, a difference of aesthetic can render the whole effort ineffectual. My own visual response, especially to the picture of the red flower, is more like "that looks kind of neat" than like "that's an awful thing to do". And I may not be AI's intended audience -- I am already aware of the existence of female circumcision* (see first footnote below) and think it's part of a suite of beliefs and practices which are sucking in many ways for the women involved** (see second footnote) -- but I certainly don't find myself more shocked and galvanized now than I did before seeing the posters. Maybe even less so, now that I've been encouraged to think of the issue in terms of pretty flowers that are still pretty instead of women's genitals which are painful and/or desensitized and/or medically problematic.

I'm tempted to say that the well-meaning folks at AI should have given more thought to what constitutes attractiveness in the American mainstream at the moment anyway. Maybe I'm not speaking for the mainstream if I am part of the jaded urban coastal population that came of age in a world containing Tim Burton movies, but it sure looks to me like I am being encouraged on all sides to think of "damaged" and "beautiful" as synonymous. Consider the usual suite of designer clothing ads with hollow-eyed, haunted-looking models being moodily unhappy in their artful rips and frays. Consider the massive Louis Vuitton poster I used to have to stand next to while waiting for my train, the model's makeup smeared awkwardly across her face while she stared vaguely and sullenly at the camera. Consider Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands, all trauma and confusion and scars and alienation, and now be honest and admit that that was hot. Take the whole gothy punky thing about scars and stitches and ruinous rebellion, and the whole fashion world's thing about violence and jadedness and artful misery, and you could throw in there the wildly popular porn stuff about dominance and pain too, and take the exhausting world of irony and oversaturation in which anything pretty and happy is contemptible for its naivete, and now go back and look at those flowers.

I think it's a bad call. I think the audience for these posters is more jaded than Amnesty International realizes, and is going to be attracted to the imagery in a way that will undermine AI's efforts to get them involved. I don't think people are going to look at this and say, "Hey, that's hot, let's do more of that," but I can see them looking and saying, "Huh, that's neat, oh, I guess that sucks," and moving on and forgetting about it. What do you think?

*Term used with the understanding that it is flawed, but I have problems with the term "female genital mutilation" also, because it is a supposedly descriptive term which has a nasty little cultural value judgment embedded in it when it is used to describe, for instance, procedures justified by Islam in Sudan but not procedures justified by aesthetics in New York or by being so very punk rock in San Francisco. And I am not just whistling Dixie here and playing the Let's Set Aside Moral Judgment Just Because We Can game; I am playing the If You Fail To Recognize That The Morality Of Any Of These Things Is A Product Of Specific Cultural Processes And Agendas You Cannot Possibly Understand The Effects Of Your Attempt To Eliminate Them, And The World Is Full Of People Trying To Change Parts Of Other Cultures Without Understanding Them Because They Think All They Need To Understand Is That This Is Wrong But They Do Not Consider That The Cultural Constructions Of Morality Which Inform The Practices In Question Will Persist If The Practice Is Suppressed By Brute Force And This Can Have Consequences As Brutal As The Practice Itself** game. It's not a very popular game, really. The print on the box is just too tiny.

**This is going to take over this entry, which was supposed to be about pictures of sewn-up flowers, but I cannot resist the urge to elaborate. If female "circumcision" continues as a practice because of a cultural belief that sexual restraint is an absolutely essential virtue in a woman and that modifying her genitals is the only way to really ensure and confirm that she has such restraint, and a woman who is considered to lack virtue will lack marriage options and a woman who does not get married in this particular society will have an incredibly difficult life economically, socially, and legally, then the reason a caring parent would circumcise a daughter is obvious: it sucks but being ostracized and destitute and unfairly stripped of property rights and shit like that may very well suck more. If those values persist, a woman who is rescued from this modification (in a community which demands it of her) has not been gloriously set free so we can now go about our business, she has been made horribly disadvantaged in the context of her community. She may even seek out the procedure herself in order to remedy the situation, and then what have you accomplished? Shit all. Ergo: if you want no more of this cutting up girls' goodies, it needs to be possible for girls and women with goodies intact to have some quality of life in their communities. Maybe you start with the economic stuff; remove obstacles to women independently owning property and earning income. Remove the stigma to being unmarried, which is much harder. Or maybe you start with the virtue thing, and convince people that you can have an au naturel vagina and still refrain from fucking everyone in sight and still generally be a good person to marry. You could try to convince people that fucking everyone in sight is not a problem anyway, but that seems to be difficult in a lot of places. Maybe do all of them at once. Maybe do all of them at once and try to stop the goodies-cutting. It's a tall order, and I tend to think it's a big reason why supporting activists who are actually in the places where bad shit is happening and who may actually understand the ramifications of their issues has more potential than sending in brigades of arrogant outsiders who just think they know This Is Wrong And Needs To Be Stopped. Also I should have my Shift key taken away from me.

Posted by dianna at December 2, 2007 03:35 PM

Roses sewn shut are understated and elegant, in a manner that underscores the violent horror of the operation. The image seems to operative via a strategy of visual catachresis; when we hear terms like "female genital mutilation," "female circumcision," or "infibulation," we might generally think of blood, infection, "The Color Purple," The Horrors of the Dark Continent, etc., but not of things soft and pristine, nothing muted.

That's on the one hand. On the other hand, flowers that have been hacked, then sewn shut, might be more accurate.

For practical considerations: I doubt that AI would find many places that would allow them to post ads that depict the real thing.

Posted by: DelightfulFormerHousemate at December 2, 2007 04:34 PM

There was an interesting post on Female Genital Circumcision/Mutilation/Cutting a few months back at The Official Blog, which elaborates, I think, on a lot of the thoughts in your second footnote.

When I first saw the ad, which I think was at Pandagon, I didn't even notice the flowers were sewn at first. Then I saw the bindings and I thought they looked vaguely corset-ish, and the thing actually looked like a neat craft project. Then I saw it was about FGM and I realized they were going for Bad. I think the ad's good if your only criterion is "Is this ad visually striking? If so, then they'll read the text and get our message and that's what's important." But if you have a more complex set of criteria, like visually striking + gets people thinking along the lines you want them to in order to be receptive to the ad's message, I think it's a failure. In my case, at least, my mind was walking in the exact opposite direction before the text turned it around and gave it a stern look.

Posted by: Zach S. at December 2, 2007 05:07 PM

I suppose what I don't understand is why/how making us think of soft, pristine, muted, elegant things would be an effective tactic. Compared to the impression I have of the anatomical reality, the sewn-flower image makes me downright complacent.

But I do agree that a poster showing that reality would be somewhat hard to get placed. And there is of course a problem with inviting revulsion of people's bodies (which, modified or not, are still theirs). But I like to think there is a better image available.

Posted by: Dianna at December 2, 2007 05:17 PM

Yes! The stern look! Precisely the problem to which I refer.

Posted by: Dianna at December 2, 2007 05:18 PM

I don't where AI hopes to run these ads, but it may be trying to reach older women and men (with money to donate), from the middle class, who were raised in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, who were brought up to believe seriously in douching. This generation, as opposed to our own, was not raised on damaged = pretty, vis-a-vis Tim Burton, and genuinely couldn't handle a more graphic or accurate representation.

Posted by: DelightfulFormerHousemate at December 2, 2007 05:34 PM

Along the lines of what DelightfulFormerHousemate is saying, Amanda at Pandagon posted a defense of the ad. I was somewhat surprised at how many commenters felt the ad was devastatingly effective, made them cringe, worked entirely without the text, etc. Maybe it is a generational thing. Or maybe they have idiosyncratic tastes. Or maybe we have idiosyncratic tastes. Or maybe everyone has idiosyncratic tastes and nothing means anything.

Posted by: Zach S. at December 2, 2007 06:56 PM

DFH, I see your point about the audience. But there's sort of still a sticking point for me that goes like: if this charitable campaign is trying to appeal to people with spare money (whoever they are demographically), aren't those the same people who are targeted by the expensive-living magazines with the creepy violence=sexy fashion spreads? It seems like they would still have to deal with the effects of that media culture.

Or reject it and set themselves up as an alternative, I suppose. I may have just answered my own question.

Zach: yeah, I saw that in the Feministing comments too. I'm kind of baffled by it, but that's probably just a damning reflection of my own aesthetic sensibilities.

Posted by: Dianna at December 2, 2007 07:22 PM

I wish Amanda hadn't started her defense with:
There were some commenters at Feministing casting around for a reason to find these ads offensive (just a few, most were impressed by the ads)...
only because it's kind of a crappy straw-dissenter tactic. You can be unimpressed with the ads without casting around disingenuously for some cause for offense, and you can criticize something without automatically being offended by it. But she seems to be pretty offended by other people's criticizing the ads at all. I find that to suck.

And I should clarify that what I was baffled by above was the commenters who considered the ads totally shocking and effective. My unclear grammar offends me.

Posted by: Dianna at December 2, 2007 07:31 PM

Yeah, Amanda can be just a tad annoying in her willingness to assume bad faith on the part of anyone who disagrees with her. "You don't really dislike that ad, you're just flailing around trying to be a more-feminist-than-thou poseur!"

Posted by: Zach S. at December 2, 2007 07:44 PM

Huh. Here's an alternate/additional idea from one of the commenters in the Pandagon thread.

Maybe a photoshopped photo of a woman & a man without a nose or mouth or eyes would get the picture across with short text.

See, I think that has potential. It could be less pretty and less elegantly distant and more human-related, but it wouldn't have to be bloody and graphic and accurate.

I need to stop reading blog threads and go do my laundry, but I can't go to the laundry room because my roommate went to the basement to retrieve his date's bike and they haven't emerged yet. Either he's gone into let-me-show-you-all-of-my-house mode again or they're getting it on, and either way I don't want to go find out.

Posted by: Dianna at December 2, 2007 07:51 PM

I note that Amanda also just posted a defense of that pornography book that you hated. She does mention the problems you had with the book, but she sort of sweeps them under the rug.

Posted by: Zach S. at December 2, 2007 07:53 PM

Maybe his date has a really fascinating bike.

Posted by: Zach S. at December 2, 2007 08:04 PM

Yeah, she probably does. They might have needed to go into the lounge, which is set up all sexy-speakeasy-like from last night's party, to inspect it properly. On the sofa. By candlelight.

I've noticed the sparkling book reviews, at Pandagon and elsewhere, and I've read a couple of them. I'm not allowed to read any more, though, because my cat gets upset when I start shouting at my computer monitor.

Posted by: Dianna at December 2, 2007 08:17 PM

I take DFH's point about AI needing to be able to display these images places, but only up to a point. Because I don't find the images striking at all, but rather understated and pretty in a way that misses utterly the horror of the Hacking-and-Scraping, Sometimes With Scalpels, Sometimes With Any Sharp Object Available, Sewing Shut, Sometimes with Needle and Thread, Sometimes with Acacia Thorns, Leaving to Infection and Scar Tissue "procedure." I actually think this is one place where it's important to call a spade a spade: if you want to convey the outrageousness of FGM*, then I think it's crucial to do it by showing the thing itself. Not pretty flowers or, you know, caged birds singing, which have this delicately metaphorical relationship to what you're actually talking about, but bloody, stitched, infected, scarified vaginas. Because I think that the unwillingness to show the uncomfortable nether regions of women's bodies in public is clearly, clearly, a big and very related problem. I take Di's point, too, about the probability of creating revulsion toward body parts - but it seems to me that the point of this campaign is to create revulsion toward maimed body parts. Makes you squeamish? Wrecks your lunch hour? Makes you uncomfortable and you don't know where to look? Good - that's exactly what you need to make people feel in order to effectively communicate your point that this is something awful that wrecks a lot more than a morning train ride or a magazine flip-through for the women involved. That's the entire point, and it's important.

Failing that, because I recognize that the FCC might want to interfere with my plan to display real mutilated vaginas at bus stops, how about stitched-together badly-cut pieces of raw beef and chicken? Because I kind of prefer the idea of using one piece of meat to represent another better than another goddamn flower-as-genital image. I'm sorry I'm ranting, but for some reason I've just hit my limit with this flower-vagina thing.

*Di, I'm using FGM because I can't bring myself to type out an acronym for your two footnotes. Also, I think I might feel more knee-jerk and less anthropological about it than you do.

Posted by: katie at December 3, 2007 10:23 AM

Bravo! Bravo! I am pleased not to be the only one ranting here.

I don't know if anthropological is what I am being. I may just be being incredibly suspicious, in that I do not necessarily trust people to make things better without also accidentally making them worse. Ooh -- I am being holistically harm-reductiony. It has a nice ring to it.

In any case, I am wholeheartedly behind your ranting and ire and I like your meat idea. I would find that deeply disturbing and scary and gross and sad. Though I must point out that this stupid flower thing did, actually, fill you with indignation and ire and cause you to be galvanized and ranty, if only because it is so inadequate in its failure to convey horrible trauma.

Posted by: Dianna at December 3, 2007 11:23 AM

Yeah, but it's making me ranty toward AI, not toward mutilators of female genitalia, which I don't think is what they're going for. I mean, it's making me rant toward you, but about them. When they are trying to make me feel ranty toward the other them. You know what I mean.

Meat! Stitchy meat!

I also liked the idea about the person with no mouth/no eyes/no nose as a possible alternative, as long as it was unpleasant rather than interesting and sort of neat. Like stitched nostrils, or a big hole where their nose should be. As long as they didn't look like cleft palate kids, because then you'd get people donating to the wrong thing.

Posted by: katie at December 3, 2007 02:36 PM