Kassie Hartendorp, Workers Party member and Queer Avenger.
At the end of 2011, an advertisement for Libra tampons was pulled from air after members from the queer community called out the company for its transphobia. Many argued that the company was sending a strong message to those who did not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, that they were not as ‘authentic’ as their biological counterparts.
The issue was framed as being problematic for only a small amount of ‘oversensitive’ members of the trans community but the advertisement can be linked back to the way that negative images work to oppress many on the gender and sexuality spectrum.
Featured on Australian and NZ television, as well as the Libra website and Youtube, the advertisement featured two women applying their make-up in a bathroom at a club. One appears to be a cis-woman and the other appears to be a drag queen. The two embark on a competition to see who the ‘real woman’ is by both putting on mascara, lipgloss and adjusting their breasts. The contest is ‘won’ when the cis-woman pulls out her Libra tampon causing the drag queen to storm off defeated, due to her apparent biological deficiency – the fact that she cannot menstruate like her cis counterpart.
Comments flowed in on the Libra Facebook page and various news, blog and social networking sites accusing Libra of being, at best ignorant, at worst, blatantly transphobic and misogynist. Those who spoke out were labelled as being ‘too sensitive’ and disregarded the issue as ‘political correctness gone wild.’ The main discourse being used, or ways of talking about the advertisement were framed around the idea of ‘personal offence.’ Some gender variant people made the argument that they were not offended, which implied that the whole issue was moot. The drag queen appearing in the advertisement made the public announcement that she saw no need to apologise and saw the problem as coming from a ‘small portion of the trans community’ who have ‘chosen to view the ad as a personal attack.’
Aside from the fact that most gender variant people do not ‘choose’ to feel attacked by advertisements that use their often difficult lives as the butt of a joke by a multimillion dollar corporation, the entire framing of the discussion should be readjusted. Advertisements such as this one should be seen as having an oppressive effect, rather than an offensive one.
Labelling a comment, slur or stereotype as offensive, lowers the problem to that of the individual rather than identifying it as a structural problem. Someone could be offended by loud music or bright coloured clothing. An old co-worker of mine felt personally offended every time she saw someone wearing pyjama pants tucked into Ugg boots to a shopping mall. At the same time, someone can be offended by a woman who strongly speaks out in a male-dominated environment, or a queer couple holding hands down the street. A corporation could be offended when a marginalised community protests against their transphobic advertisement – a CEO could feel personally attacked in much the same way as those being degraded or insulted by their media campaign.
The point here, is that while offence is an important component in this debate, it cannot be the only way in which we describe and discuss how media and oppression works. As one blogger puts it: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can mobilize an entire society in violent hate against me.” Depicting a gender variant person as being ‘less woman’ than a cisgendered woman due to the fact she does not menstruate is oppressive. Reinforcing a gender binary that assumes and expects that you fit into one gender category or the other is oppressive. Profiting off the fear of someone not being able to fit into one of these gender categories is oppressive. These are not personal attacks on individual members of the trans community; they are the product of an oppressive system.
Issues of oppression need to be understood at a material basis – that is, not just social phenomena that happen to random individuals, which only make sense through a lens of personal experience. Transgender people are the subjects of discrimination when it comes to basic rights such as employment, housing and medical care, as well as being threatened by verbal and physical harassment in their daily lives. This oppression is at its very core, structural as it is reproduced within institutions such as workplaces, hospitals, schools and governmental agencies. While, these oppressive forces can be clearly felt on a personal basis, the way of articulating the problem and arming against its destructive effects must be done on a wider level that takes our economic and social system into account.
Capitalism is often thought of as just an economic system but it should also be understood as a social relation. How we relate to each other as individuals, groups and identities is shaped by capitalist logic. These social relations, such as the gender binary, are reproduced through the capitalist media.
While gains have most certainly been made, trans people are often stigmatised, insulted and ridiculed within the mainstream media. The Libra advertisement is just another message that reinforces the oppressive idea that gender variant people are second class citizens. If you ask any transgender person, they will feel the very real effects of this at some point in their lives, if not on a daily basis. Furthermore, it cannot be forgotten that a company is profiting off these very messages because of an advertising industry that uses fear and division as a tool to sell products.
Many members of the queer community failed to recognise the oppressive nature of the message the advertisement sent. If we are going to combat queer oppression that has negative effects on both same-sex attracted people and the gender variant population, there needs to be a recognition that an attack on the trans community is an attack on us all. We need to shift away from the mode of thinking that blames the individual for taking a ‘personal offence’ at an oppressive act.
An advertisement may seem small, but it is one building block of many that have over history, built a mighty wall of structural oppression. Unfortunately that one brick isn’t going to cause the whole wall to crumble, but if we can together get a foothold, and find the right tools to start chiselling away at those ruptures, then maybe we can tear it down and build a world in which no-one is treated as second class.
Kassie Hartendorp, Workers Party member and Queer Avenger.