Student’s Union make sexist Blunder on Women’s Day

Posted on March 14, 2010 by

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Southampton University Student Union (SUSU) have made a widely criticised blunder in promoting an event for Women’s Day – a day marked around the world since 1909 to celebrate equality and the progress of feminism – with a poster featuring bikini-clad women and references such as ‘Here come the girls’ and ‘Multi-tasking’.

SUSU ineptitude strikes again

Meanwhile, whilst the union promoted the day in this way, hard-working activist societies including SU Amnesty International, Socialist Students and the Third Wave Feminist Society had been marking the week with meetings, talks and discussions on the role of feminism and the struggle for equality.   Many members of these societies felt undermined in their attempts to promote these causes on campus when their union reproduced many of the stereotypes that women have struggled against.  And to cap it off, the promoted event to discuss women’s health did not even happen.

Azeerat Johnson has written the following draft letter of complaint to the union:

After seeing this poster, some friends and I were surprised by the depiction of woman in an event that was meant to represent women’s day. As students interested in having a well-rounded university experiences that allows us to understand and explore the infinite depths of our combined cultural and social histories and identities, we were initially excited by the idea of students having a women’s day programme. However, after seeing the poster we felt that our university had not only let us down, but the movement that women’s day should represent.

First, we feel that it is important to understand what women’s day is supposed to mean. As an event that began in 1909, it was supposed to symbolise the improvements that women have made in our social, political and economic sphere, as well as a way to show the respect and dignity that women are too often denied in the public sphere with billboards portraying us as objects rather than individuals. It runs in tangent with feminism which has fought a continuous battle to respect a woman’s right to choose to become whatever she wanted to be whether a model, a housewife, a lecturer or a business executive whilst respecting her as a female individual working from within a framework that allows her to make these choices.

This is why the poster confused, angered and disappointed us and so many others that we spoke to. There are several failings of the poster that must be addressed.

1. The proud history that woman’s day and feminism was not even alluded to, which ultimately means that despite the other problems, it fails at its onset to capture the message of the event that it was supposed to promote.

2. The use of stereotypically beautiful female bodies, which could have been transferred to every and any other poster for events rather than one about women’s day. An ongoing battle for feminism is the understanding that different women’s bodies are beautiful and that as human beings who come in different sizes and shape we deserve and demand to be treated as equals no matter what our sizes. We do NOT need to be a certain size or figure to be categorised (another problem) as beautiful. Any poster that does not respect that is furthering this demoralisation of women, and this particular poster that was supposed to show how University of Southampton celebrates and respects these differences not only fails, but exceedingly disappoints.

3. It is unclear why Robert Pattinson and Ewan McGregor appear on this poster, other than a representation of stereotypical female “eye-candy”. This furthers the disrespect of women as full identities that want more than the teenage “heartthrobs” and insults not only us, but also men in general, as they then need to fit into that false stereotype to be seen as “attractive”.

4. It is also interesting to us how the men in these posters are (from what we can see) fully dressed whilst the women are scantily dressed in bikinis. Note, it is our belief that as individuals it is your right to express yourself by dressing in anyway that you feel from a bikini to a nun’s habit. But in these instances it furthers the objectification of women wearing little to nothing as being “sexy”. This angers us when we are forced to deal with it in the media and larger society in general, talk-less of an advertisement for an event made to promote the necessity to stamp out this objectification.

5. With the little information that is actually on the poster describing this event, it becomes clear that it is not a celebration of women for what we could become, but a further attempt to categorise us as children that would be more than happy with the occasional sweets, sing-star competitions and cocktails. Considering the inspiring history of women’s day and feminism, this lack of recognition of our potential as females is what insults the most.

6. There was no further information provided about the actual discussions or talks that we assume it was meant to promote at 11:00 on the 9th March, and as we were frustrated at the poster and wished to address it during the discussion, we went to the union concourse and we saw no sign of this event taking place, which means that the forum in which we and other like-minded students could discuss and learn more about women’s day was not even provided towards the end.

Ultimately, the event and the poster have already passed, so although we wish that this disrespect towards an honourable tradition had not taken place in the first place, there is nothing that can be done to change what has already happened. Therefore, it is our desire to open up a discourse with the individuals in charge of making this poster, and to receive a written apology for the lack of sensitivity that was shown towards the day that should represent the women’s movement that has been making progress for centuries. The notion of holding a women’s day event at the university is an inspired one, as the women’s movement does deserve recognition for the struggle that it has been through. However, we wish to ensure that future events do not repeat the same mistakes that were clearly shown with this poster.

Balancing out all that yin?

Since then, it has been reported that the Women’s Officer of the union and VP of Welfare and Societies are to have a meeting with the people who made the poster, and the President of SUSU has also said that they have also had complaints about the subsequent Men’s day poster, which also successfully digs out various stereotypes in order to promote itself.  Questions have also been raised as to why the Women’s officer, who is now chasing up the issue, failed to block this poster in the first place, as it seems unlikely that they would not have been involved in organising an event called Women’s Day – and if not, why not?

Although both events are in aid of Raise and Give (RAG – the student union’s charitable fundraising arm), many activists feel that, despite their supposed good intentions, these posters have done more harm than good for their causes, and that the union should do a better job at representing all their views and at taking a progressive attitude to issues regarding gender equality.  It would be (rightly) hard to imagine such a poster for events regarding sexuality or race, but many still feel it is justifiable for gender.

Anyone wishing to further pursue the issue should visit http://contacts.susu.org/?action=email&user=45 and let the president know what they think.

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