Feeling awkward is the first step to feeling AWESOME.
How humor can change the world, one taboo at a time. Welcome to your safe place.
Comedy, we may say, is society protecting itself — with a smile.
J. B. Priestley
“Camp Gyno,” the new spot for Hello Flo, is creating some really positive buzz:
Huffington Post writes, “‘Camp Gyno’ Ad Gets It Oh-So Right, Makes Us Proud To Be Women.”
And Buzzfeed says it,“Is An Amazing Breakthrough In Tampon Advertising.”
But what exactly is this “breakthrough that gets it oh-so right?”
Products that cater to female genitalia.
That’s what things like tampon commercials are ACTUALLY supposed to be catering to.
Have I lost you yet? More importantly:
Great! Let’s keep moving!
The long and short of it, is that talking about certain things a female body can do (e.g. menstruation) makes people uncomfortable. It hits on what we call, taboo. And, when it comes to advertising products for female bodies, there are some pretty strong taboos in place.
Taboo: A custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
The tension for taboo in feminine products comes in when we are faced with the reality of how a female body actually functions. Or more succinctly: how a person occupying a female body actually experiences the functions of their body.
Sheng Wang does a pretty good job summing up how people think of female genitalia versus how it can function when he jokes,
If you really wanna be tough, grow a vagina! Those things can take a pounding!
And, he’s right. Female genitalia is often used to describe someone who is acting in a weak manner. But as Wang points out, this is not an accurate description for the way female genitalia can really function. His joke points out a truth that we collectively, constantly misrepresent.
So why do we have this disconnect? Why do we name things strong that aren’t and vice versa?
In psychology there is a factor called the Social Desirability Bias (SDB). It’s essentially a factor psychologists try to be aware and control for when administering questionnaires or evaluations.
Social desirability reflects the tendency on behalf of the subjects to deny socially undesirable traits and to claim socially desirable ones, and the tendency to say things which place the speaker in a favorable light. …[A] person might purposely misrepresent the truth as a form of impression management motivated by desire to avoid evaluation.
The way female bodies are being portrayed versus the way in which they actually function has been dictated by our collective Social Desirability Bias.
Because things like a menstrual cycle aren’t seen as socially favorable attributes, they aren’t something western culture looks to proclaim, publicly. Talk about menstruation is prohibited. Similarly, referring to feminine bodies as tough and masculine as vulnerable is also going against the customary taboo in place. Even if what you are saying has evidence to back it up, the SBD requires a purposeful misrepresentation in order to uphold the norm.
Norms are important determinants of socially desirable behaviour, as they determine what constitutes a good impression in a given situation.
Even though we all know menstrual cycles are a trait of a some female bodies, people are taught that they don’t want to hear about it. It’s a social taboo that has been placed on female bodies. It is part of the norm. It generally does not lend itself to leaving a good impression. Nor does bragging about how tough your vagina is. However, there are ways around taboos.
Here comes the funny
What’s so interesting about “Camp Gyno” and Sheng Wang’s assertion is that they both find the same way to mitigate the SDB we’ve all agreed to. When talking about female bodies, they do it with humor.
Now there are good and bad ways to do this. My health teacher in middle school was named Mr. Man.
I’m not joking. My middle school health teacher’s name was Mr. MAN. It’s amazing.
I remember the fateful day when Mr. Man was given the responsibility of explaining to us how our (the ones with female bodies in the room) bodies function. He opened the lesson by first saying,
“I’m sorry but I’m going to have to draw some dirty pictures on the board.”
And then proceeded to draw the female reproductive system.
This would be an example of an unfortunate and, ultimately, failed attempt at using humor to cope with a taboo.
But it does hit on an interesting observation: female bodies as being the butt of jokes. The portrayal of female bodies in humor has quite a large spectrum of focus. One portrayal, that has gained a lot of attention recently, is rape jokes. If you aren’t aware a Jezebel staffer, named Lindy West, recently went on FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell to talk about how there are both good and bad rape jokes. It took a lot of nerve to go on. It also resulted in a huge amount of backlash that attacked her, personally.
What West was trying to do was talk about the subversive messaging that is involved with the bad jokes about rape (for the record she also points to how to tell a good rape joke, as does Kate Harding’s list). She was agreeing to talk to comedians about such issues with the hope that it would help lead to greater awareness and rejection towards misogyny in comedy.
I think there’s a couple important questions we can look at based on the reactions from Lindy West’s experience:
1. How was her method successful?
2. What are the next steps?
Building awareness is important. And I think West is brilliant at being able to do that.
But is still begs the question: what are the next steps? I think the answers we can garner from West’s experience is really just a set of better questions:
What can be done to change the way (certain) comedians talk about rape?
What can be done to change the taboo way in which female bodies are talked about altogether?
As Regina Barreca points out in her analysis of French theorist and author, Catherine Clement:
Initiating humor is the first taboo broken—with that one gone, we can assume other barriers are meant to fall.
If we’re really looking at why “Camp Gyno” was so revolutionary we need to understand why trying to have a serious talk about rape in comedy isn’t getting the same evangelization.
The lesson I learn from this? Maybe we can’t actually look at the vagina straight on.
Because doing so for some people is like looking at the Eye of Sauron.
But truthfully, sometimes the most successful path isn’t the most direct. It’s a rare person who can be told they are being a jerk and whose is actually self-aware enough to think about why. No matter how justified, blame is not a great method for promoting change. It alienates the perpetrators and puts them on the defensive.
A less direct approach that may offer a better success rate? Humor.
Comedy as a Safe Space
Author, Avner Ziv offers more evidence for this when he discusses how humor can actually act as a “social corrective.”
Humor exposes ugly human phenomena (those that render the world almost unbearable) to mockery, in the hope of thereby eliminating them. Man makes a mockery of man. In his efforts at changing and improving mankind, man turns matters he thinks grave into absurdities. He does this sometimes with delicate casualness, sometimes with disrespect, and sometimes with ferocity. The laughter that derives from the perception of absurdity reforms the world.
Misogyny certainly exists in comedy. And, it may feel cloying to have to feed change with a spoonful of sugar. But sometimes the right tool for the job isn’t a direct attack. And that’s the goal, right? To first bring awareness (which West does) of the problem and then to correct behavior? So what’s the next step?
Pointing out the perpetrators makes us more aware as a society but it doesn’t allow space to come to terms with the problem. It doesn’t offer a solution for change. And the ultimate goal is to create change. That’s why spots like “Camp Gyno” are absolutely justified in being called a “breakthrough in tampon advertising.”
Why? Because they create a safe space for society to deal with their own insecurities. An unthreatening space to face their own Social Desirability Bias’ taboos. They offer a space for us to confront the “ugly human phenomena” of underlying taboos rooted in sexism and, simultaneously, actually begin to eliminate them.
They do away with the most useless emotion of all when looking to promote change — blame. Blame from trying to uphold taboos. Guilt from knowing — however deeply it is buried —that taboos aren’t truth. Lying and anger when confronted with the actual truth that threatens the order of our Social Desirability Bias (anger that West became an unfortunate target of).
We need to feel empowered to change the discourse by using subversive messaging to mitigate taboos. This is how we can promote empathy and ultimately, change.
What does that mean? Simply, we need people to make more “Camp Gynos.” We need these to become so numerous that they aren’t even singled out for being so different. We need tampon ads like this to run during prime-time spots, right next to the beer commercials.
Sure, there may be terrible insensitive jokes that stem from that. But if there are pieces of content like “Camp Gyno” out there, and if we can keep making those pieces, we are on our way to taking all the oxygen out of the room for lame jokes and bad ads. The popularity of a piece like “Camp Gyno” proves there’s an audience out there who wants to watch.
Rhetoric does not get you anywhere, because Hitler and Mussolini are just as good at rhetoric. But if you can bring these people down with comedy, they stand no chance.