James Mumford

In defence of offence

On Tuesday the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced a crackdown on gender stereotyping. Adverts suggesting men are useless around the house – racing out of the door, leaving the stove bubbling over and the dishes unwashed – could be censored because they ‘reinforce and perpetuate traditional gender roles.’ Images of beautiful mothers mopping spotless floors will be able to be banned.

How do the ASA define gender stereotypes? ‘Gender stereotypes relate to body image, objectification, sexualisation, gender characteristics and roles, and mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.’ Well, that’s pretty much everyone. The ASA will have the power to make billboards bare. For as far as my own body image is concerned, I don’t need to see a gorgeous half-clad model sweating with a six-pack to be mortally offended. I feel mocked simply by seeing an advert with someone vaguely within range of their BMI.

But it’s not just a question of how individuals are made to feel. It’s more serious. Stereotyping views upheld in adverts can contribute to ‘unfair outcomes for people detrimental to society in general’. Car adverts do that. Watching a Mercedes-Benz 2017 S-Class convertible hold the road under a blood-red sky makes me feel poor. Scaled up, the sense of alienation felt by NEETS could be exacerbated, leading to an increasing crime rate. Once you start trying to guess at how messages lead to unfair outcomes you can go anywhere.

Then there’s the question of what this ban presages in terms of further bans. Earlier this week Transport for London banned the phrase ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ in an effort to make all passengers feel welcome. Dropping that antiquated terminology bears witness of course to the pace of change we are seeing over attitudes to gender fluidity. For who isn’t to say, with the ASA’s precedent set yesterday, that soon we won’t just be spared adverts of women hoovering but of women at all?

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Written by
James Mumford
James Mumford is a London-based writer and fellow at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. His most recent book, Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes, is out with Bloomsbury Continuum.

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