Saturday, February 21

Why Gendered Language Matters

Ads for Italian clothes designer Relish depict Rio de Janeiro police assaulting women (who are wearing fashionable shoes, that you want to buy. Really!). Officials in Rio are bothered by the ads, even trying to have them removed, though mostly because it tarnishes the reputation of the police force and the community.

In discussions of these ads women have described showing these ads to male friends and relatives who are bothered by the ads, but like the officials in Rio, are more bothered that it makes the police look like bad guys than by the sexual assaults depicted.

It seems clear to me that when these men look at these ads they identify with the police, and see *themselves* being implicated. When someone accuses you of a mugging, you probably care more about proving your own innocence than you do about the victim's lost his money or mental trauma.

At first I was inclined to say that at least we all agree that such behavior is unacceptable, especially from the police who are supposed to be a source of protection from this very sort of behavior. But as I thought about it I started dwelling on the idea that supposedly progressive pro-feminist men were looking at these ads and completely incapable of seeing how the sexualization of violence is the real issue because they were so hung up on defending the police and by extension themselves.

So here's the thing. There is no reason that men shouldn't be able to look at this ad and identify with the women and not the police. However boys do not read books about girls the same way girls read books about boys. Girls hear 'men' and train themselves to assume that they are included. Boys do not do the same. Groups of girls are called guys. Groups of boys are not called gals. All of these things conspire in the lives of men to stunt their ability to identify with a woman, or female character-- even for the five seconds it takes to look at this ad and imagine themselves being so brutalized by the police.

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