Sexism in UNLV’s Newspaper?

On the way to a class last week, I picked up a copy of The Rebel Yell, UNLV’s student newspaper.  As I finished flipping through it, what I saw on the back cover made me cringe a bit, and I wondered if there would be any problems over it.

The back cover consisted entirely of an ad for a hamburger joint called The Burger Grind, and the ad featured a picture in the corner of a nude 1950’s-era Betty Page-esque model, kneeling and shown from behind, her body divided up by dotted lines and labeled with common kinds of cuts of meat–“tenderloin,” “rump,” etc. 

Within days, I was getting mass emails that had been sent out to the entire staff, apparently, by people at the school’s Women’s Center who wanted to protest and boycott what they called an example of misogyny. 

Now, it’s certainly their right to be offended and to make their voice heard, but I have to wonder if this is really an appropriate stand to take. 

First of all, the picture, while tasteless and not nearly as clever as the advertiser seems to think, is hardly obscene or deeply offensive.  The “joke” is that young men (such as those who might read the student paper and frequent a burger joint) might see a woman as “a piece of meat,” not unlike a cow.  Yes, that’s rude and tacky, but in Las Vegas, it’s also pretty much par for the course.  With all of the many kinds of exploitation of women going on here, why would someone choose this one as the one that crosses the line?  When there are so many more serious violations of dignity out there, why make your stand here?  What’s the goal–contrite apologies from any men involved in the ad and promises to sponsor day care facilities for the daughters of working moms? 

This ad–worst case scenario–encourages college men to develop and indulge in sexual appetites…not exactly something they needed much help with, anyway.  The ad doesn’t actually hurt any woman in any way.  Rather, Las Vegas is filled with dozens of venues, publications, and social dysfunctions that cripple the lives of actual women every day.  Why not raise a voice against any of <i>those</i>?

Taking such a strong stand on such a relative non-issue will only make those taking it look desperate and silly.  Critics on the right often depict social progressives as using “manufactured outrage” to further their agendas for publicity and narcissism–won’t this “controversy” just end up being someone’s example of that, as out of proportion as it is?  Why start a crusade that a reasonable person must know might end up being embarrassing?

Why not dedicate this time and energy to something that will actually improve the lives of local women?  Promote breast cancer research.  Mentor teen mothers or help tutor at-risk girls so they can get into this college.  Reach out and offer counseling to the “adult entertainment” workers who themselves are being or have been abused in ways that will hinder their healthy lives (alas, not all such women are independent, secure single moms just trying to save up for school, despite what Hollywood says). 

David Letterman has apparently given money and career promotions to a much younger woman on his staff in exchange for sex.  Where’s the outrage over <i>this</i>?  A man using his authority to seduce a younger woman and then rewarding her for it?  Especially in the post-Clinton world, shouldn’t advocates for women be up in arms over such a blatant abuse of dignity?

But no, I don’t think it’s reasonable for any Donna Quixote to take up her lance and go charging off after the sexism windmill that is a mildly sleazy picture in the student newspaper.  We all have bigger fish to fry.

7 comments on “Sexism in UNLV’s Newspaper?

  1. Does the student newspaper take ads for those “dozens of venues, publications, and social dysfunctions that cripple the lives of actual women every day”? If not, then the Women’s Center is likely tackling the tiny part of the problem over which they may have some effect — a student paper on their own campus.

    I’m a little surprised by your objections. Isn’t it better to start somewhere than nowhere?

  2. Ardis, true, true. You’ve got a point. The answer to your first question depends on what one characterizes as an institution or ad that’s detrimental to women. An ad for a bar? An ad for a bar that pictures a scantily clad, salacious-looking model? An ad for a strip club, but without any picture? An ad for a raunchy R-rated sex comedy, with or without pictures? I don’t read The Rebel Yell enough to remember what most of their advertising is like, but this is certainly not the first ad for male-oriented, sex-objectifying places or services.

    I actually understand and agree that they’re probably just trying to “act locally,” but this strikes me as an unworthy rallying point. As I said, the ad might be crude, but it’s not actually hurting anybody, nor is a crusade against it likely to create any serious benefit to local women, even those on campus. Why not use their resources to battle real health, academic, or economic problems that young women face around here–there are certainly plenty to choose from!

  3. Huston, the emails did not come from the Women’s Center or the Women’s Studies department. They came from me, and they were only sent out to the English and Women’s Studies departments because I am a graduate student in of both those departments.

    The ad is not merely crude. It depicts a woman’s body labeled as though it’s meat. The image could only “encourage young men to indulge their sexual appetites” if their idea of sex involves cutting up a woman’s body into cuts of consumable meat. If it were mere nudity, I’d be typing the paper I have due on Wednesday right now instead of writing to you.

    If the ad depicted a chained black man with copy that implied that he could make people’s lives easier by taking care of their needs ater they’d finished a hard day at the office, would you still be arguing that the ad is a “non-issue”? If not, then could you please explain to me why racist images are not acceptable while analogously sexist images are?

    Secondly, to those of us in the academic community, shifting the focus from the claims being made by those arguing the other side to other topics is called “two wrongs make a right” reasoning by logicians. It’s bad reasoning, Huston. The fact that something else is just as bad or worse doesn’t make this all right. It only means that there’s more than one bad thing going on.

    Finally, why do you assume that none of us are involved in the kinds of efforts aimed at making changes for the better in the real world? Did I miss you at the Take Back the Night rally last night? This annual event is designed to raise consciousness about domestic violence, the incidence of which Nevada leads the nation in.

    Some of us quietly do volunteer work, with homeless veterans, with street prostitutes who want to leave the life, with people early in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, with pro bono legal services for the poor–the list goes on and on. There are many of us. The only reason you’ve become aware of our activities surrounding this image is that it’s an on-campus effort.

    The people opposed to this ad are now communicating via Facebook, so you won’t be troubled by the emails anymore. Unless that is, you decide to “act locally” and join the group.

    Nah. I didn’t think so.

    Peace,
    Gina

  4. Huston,

    The problem here is that in an intellectual, scholastic community, we actively teach (ie. Critical Thinking (Philosophy 102), English 102, among others) students to think and write amongst a culturally diverse society. This includes free acceptance, equality, and inclusion of all races, genders, sexual preferences, and religions. Therefore, our university ethics are dependant upon this cultural and social diversity as well as these inclusionary practices. So, when we have a specific university publication that directly encourages such dehumanizing, gender-biased measures via advertising, these measures directly castigate the ethics in which our academic community tries so desperately to uphold. In addition, the university newspaper, the Rebel Yell, also maintains itself, partially, on student fees, so like it or not, the students indirectly, and forcibly, participate in this form of negative discourse.

    I realize that we live in Las Vegas-the sex capital of the world, so to speak, and sex-based advertising is consumed by the media; however, there is no place for this in a university publication. Consequently, “Juicy Lucy” should not be promoted by the Yell, UNLV’s “higher-learning” institutition newspaper: the editors should consider the overall goals, ethics, and purpose of the university and responsibly take action by withdrawing “Juicy Lucy” from the Grind advertisement.

    Sincerely,

    Erin

  5. Gina, whoa, you’re getting a little “if you’re not with us you’re against us” on me there. I don’t dispute the integrity of the process by which you interpret the ad to be offensive–it makes perfect sense. However, isn’t it also possible to see the ad as cheap, juvenile, and rude, but not necessarily as a significant affront to civilization?

    If I give short shrift to people’s efforts to improve our corner of the world, then I’m sorry for not recognizing it in my post before. While it’s perfectly reasonable to petition the newspaper and advertiser to alter the ad, I don’t know that this should be the next Archduke Ferdinand or Gulf of Tonkin–is this really the incident that instigates an all out war? You compare the ad unfavorably to a nude, but I’m not sure I see how one form of objectification is worse than the other–the Burger Grind ad is more overt, certainly, but isn’t its message implied in scores of advertisements and messages daily?

    Still, a world without the ad would be better than a world with it–at that level, I wish you luck. I just hope this easy target doesn’t get so blown out of proportion that it distracts from the more important kinds of work that you mentioned in your comment. If anything, I hope this controversy draws more attention to those.

    I “act locally” by avoiding participation in such degrading media personally, by encouraging others to do the same, and by raising a family by the same standards.

    Erin, while I largely agree with your ultimate points, I worry that the language you use to get there smacks of so much trendy jargon. The “devil’s advocate” side of me–the teacher–has to ask: does your acceptance of diversity extend to those who would objectify the values you hold dear? You don’t seem very accepting of the Burger Grind’s values. Where’s our friend Voltaire when we need him?

    I don’t like “Juicy Lucy” any more than you do, but to suggest that the drawing’s appearance is automatically inconsistent with the goals of higher education is a subjective opinion–would you be open-minded about a discussion with the Burger Grind over their thoughts on the subject, or only on demonizing and shutting down them or anyone else who disagrees with you? What exactly in PHI 102 or ENG 102 strikes down “Juicy Lucy” out of hand as an intolerable heresy?

    I definitely recognize the student body’s right–even responsibility–to interact with the student newspaper over its content, both positively and negatively. I just hate to see an understandable matter of community activism turn into a witch hunt. I wish you all success in promoting respectful standards, though.

    I’d also like to thank you both for your very kind, thoughtful comments. This is the kind of productive discourse that a university environment should foster!

    Though it is only mildly related to the issues discussed here, I’d be anxious to hear your thoughts about my new post about the Rebel Yell’s response that I’m about to put up. As Gina said, peace!

  6. Huston, if it is possible to see Juicy Lucy as a merely sophomoric image, I wish someone, anyone, would explain to me how that works. I’ve been asking for days if someone who claims that the image is harmless or fun or just plain stupid could explain it to me. So far, no one has.

    Can you, for instance, make the case that the racist imagery analogy is not apt? If so, in what ways do the images diverge? If you cannot, would you claim that the racist image I described is merely “cheap, juvenile, and rude” or “mildly sleazy,” or is racism somehow inherently worse than sexism? These are some of the questions to which I seek answers from those who claim that the Juicy Lucy image is an unimportant, humorous, or stupid issue. These are some of the questions that must be answered by those who wish to refute my claims. So far, no one has answered them.

    I have said before and I will say again that I think the Juicy Lucy image is worse than a mere nude because it’s an image of a human female body divided and labeled as if she is a piece of meat. There is a difference between objectification and dehumanization. It may be only a difference of degree, but it is a difference, nonetheless. It seems to me that it may be Kant we need here, not Voltaire.

    Secondly, I’m not saying that if you’re not with me, you’re against me. As I’ve also repeatedly said, this is not about “winning” or “losing.” For me, this struggle is about personal integrity and education. It is about engaging in reasoned dialogue about the relationship between the use of dehumanizing imagery and the perpetuation of violence among human beings. As someone who studies culture, I am aware that study after study demonstrates that there is a causal and in some sense proportional link between the proliferation of dehumanizing imagery and the use of violence against dehumanized populations. I am part of the population this particular ad dehumanizes.

    I did get a bit more sarcastic at the end of my first post than I normally allow myself to do. The only reason I have to offer for my loss of decorum is that I am getting a bit weary of being told that I should be doing something other than what I’m doing. I only offer this information as a reason, though; it doesn’t excuse my rudeness, for which I apologize.

    Finally, I respect your decision about how you and your family choose to deal with issues like this. In fact, if you wouldn’t expose your family to such an image, then you won’t eat at the Grind Burger, since the image is one of the first things patrons see when they enter the restaurant. Welcome to the boycott.

  7. Huston,

    I don’t have much to add, as Gina covered most of my responses. However, I would like to say that I don’t find my values, as well as the overall university ethics–which include indignation over destressing the dehumanization of the female gender, very subjective, nor utilitarian, as you indirectly suggest. The campus community prides itself in, ideally, promoting cultural equality and forward social progress, not promoting hate speech or images that reflect the opposite, regardless if the subject matter relates to gender, religion, race, or sexual preference. In this case, as Gina mentioned, this is an image of a naked woman, in a semi-sexual position, with her body cut up to represent pieces of meat. She is not a mere objectified sex object, but she is dehumanized. We don’t debase people of their humanistic characteristics, in this fashion, in an intelligent community that promotes higher education. It’s just not right, on multiple levels.

    On a different note, I read your blog to the Yell, and I commend you and also appreciate your additional viewpoint on this issue. Thank you.

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