News & Views

Women who eat on tubes & brands who dine on sexism

by Kate Hollowood

Time: 1.30pm
Food: Banana 
Line: Circle 

This is me on the London Underground’s Circle line, eating a banana. What's your reaction when you see the picture?

a) Hilarious, she’s been caught in the unsightly act of eating on the tube! I can’t wait to write a Facebook comment about her gaping orifice. (I went to an all boys’ school and am still a virgin).

b) What a very ordinary picture of an ordinary girl eating an ordinary banana. Why am I looking at this?

c) I feel moved. What an extraordinary and profound social observation. Modern art is saved!

d) Poor girl. Stop talking about her gaping orifice you sexist freak! 

These are just some of the opinions that have been voiced in the press and on social media over the past week, in response to Tony Burke’s Women Who Eat On Tubes (WWEOT) Facebook group and Tumblr. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Burke started it in 2011 as an ‘art project’ with his friends. The idea is to surreptitiously snap a photo of women guiltily snacking on the London Underground and post it online, detailing the time, food and tube line. The group has since amassed almost 25,000 members who post photographs of unsuspecting women several times per day. Each post provokes praise from the group’s members, who commend each other’s sporting efforts. Despite the group's insistence that 'WWEOT is observational not judgemental. It doesn't intimidate or bully', unfortunately many mocking, derogatory comments about the subjects of the photos persist -‘The Three Little Pigs’ being one charmingly-titled post.

It’s struck a nerve. Counter groups like Women Who Eat Wherever the F**k They Want grew from two to 400 members in a week, claiming that WWEOT is both sexist and an invasion of privacy, culminating in a lunchtime underground picnic protest on Monday, which I am proud to say my banana and I were part of. WWEOT made me feel instantly uncomfortable, as it turns one person’s vulnerability into another person’s sport. Tony Burke chose women as his ‘niche’ because we still live in a society where seeing women with normal bodily functions is funny. Seeing a woman scoffing away on the tube disarms her, stripping her of the lady-like demeanour that society expects. And when you consider the prevalence of eating disorders today, this ‘joke’ is beyond distasteful. I could write a whole piece on this, but won’t bother as blogger Ellie Mae O’Hagan has already done a brilliant job. Instead, and to prove that I’m not just abusing my role at Contagious to publish a feminist rant, I'll tell you why I think this saga is relevant to brands.

The explosion of this story across both the press and people’s newsfeeds, and the way people have focused on the feminist reaction over other concerns (say, about privacy), shows that sexism is a hot topic. Other recent stories in the press include Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project, which is a crowdsourced catalogue of true stories about sexism and assault that had more than 1,000 entries after just two months. French director Eléonore Pourriat’s short film, the Oppressed Majority, which imagines a Matriarchal society where a man experiences varying degrees of abuse from women, has been viewed more than eight million times on YouTube. This attention towards gender issues is partly a reflection of changing attitudes: a recent report from youth research company Cassandra found that 60% of Generation Y and Z think that gender lines have been blurred. As gender becomes an increasingly grey area, sexist attitudes are seen as increasingly degenerate. 

We’re now seeing brands allude to sexism in their advertising more and more. Pantene’s 2013 ‘Labels Against Women’ ad shows high-powered men and women at work, focusing on the different ways in which they are perceived: e.g. we see a man labelled ‘boss’ and a woman ‘bossy’. The video was created by BBDO Guerrero in Manila and initially launched in the Philippines before clocking up almost 50 million views on YouTube. More recently, an Australian Snickers viral from Clemenger BBDO, Melbourne shows builders shouting empowering statements at female passers-by, acting out of character because they were hungry. Within a few weeks, the ad picked up nearly 3 million views.

Both Pantene and Snickers have used gender bias to be provocative in their advertising, perhaps realising it's likely to guarantee reaction and earned media. This is a step forward for an industry that is guilty of producing sexist media in the past, from the objectification of women’s bodies to sell products in print ads, or TV ads cashing in on backwards gender clichés like mum doing all the housework. But how much are Pantene and Snickers achieving besides YouTube hits? Both cases attracted negative feminist reactions. Critics felt Pantene’s film suggested a confused version of equality, one where female strength and success comes with shiny hair. The reaction to Snickers was even fiercer. By highlighting sexist behaviour in a way that suggested it’s normal, Snickers could have been perceived to be almost endorsing it. I think both brands had every intention of empowering, or at least respecting, female audiences. But, the negative reactions that the ads provoked shows how hard it is to get this right. Perhaps part of the issue is that many feminists blame the advertising industry for encouraging the objectification of women and the crazy pressures they face to look and be perfect. In their eyes, for advertising to suddenly turn round and act as if they have been on women's side all along is inevitably going to feel disingenuous. 

On the other hand, it's also risky for a brand to take an explicitly feminist stance. To many, feminism is a dirty word, associated with humourless, angry women with hairy legs and unflattering haircuts. Only 39% of female respondents in the Cassandra Gender Report said they consider themselves to be feminists, but 84% fully support gender equality. People’s fear of the word is frustrating, especially when it has been proven that heterosexual feminists have better relationships and better sex lives than other heterosexual women (as found in a 2007 study by Laurie Rudman and Julie Phelan, Rutgers University).

Sexism is a difficult subject for a brand to get right, and striking the balance between being too feminist and not feminist enough appears to be near impossible. One brand that has avoided too much criticism and arguably done much more for women than the campaigns previously mentioned, is Dove. The brand has never spoken explicitly about gender inequality, but tackles social pressures head-on by championing natural beauty and self-confidence. Real Beauty Sketches and Selfie don't vent any anger about why female body insecurities exist, but just set to work on fixing it. The brand practices what it preaches, Snowy Hanbury, strategy director at the Tom Hingston studio, told me: ‘What Dove's Real Beauty campaign did really well was to tell us that it's okay to be any shape or any size and they showed us that they believe this by putting those women into their advertising. The work was a pure embodiment of that belief, the message wasn't a second step.' And while not every brand can occupy the space that Dove has carved for itself, I think brands can learn from the way it leads by example. 

At Contagious, we’ve talked a great deal about brands taking a stand around a purpose, and tapping into news and culture to reach people. But if brands are going to successfully navigate the murky waters around sexism, they have to live up what they say, and brace themselves for a vocal response in social media.  

Now if you’ll excuse me, I'm getting pretty hungry and there’s an empty tube seat with my name on it.