Since when are associations to slavery sexy and fun?

// 25 February 2012

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This is a guest post by Elin Weiss & Hennie Weiss

Creative Commons image

Danish underwear company tbs were advertising in this year’s nu buyer’s magazine for Copenhagen Fashion Week, which was held between the 2nd and 4th of February 2012 in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of their advertisements caught our attention with its tasteless and horrific associations to slavery. A full two page advertisement, with five black women treating cotton (in their underwear), is featured in the nu magazine. The slogan appears in the top left corner and states: It’s hard to improve perfect. On the bottom right it says: visit the girls at the factory.

There are so many ‘wrongs’ with this advertisement and the obvious associations to slavery cannot be misinterpreted. Slavery is not something to be commercialised or lightly addressed. There was nothing fun or sexy about robbing people their freedom, splitting up families, forcing people to work all hours of the day, while physically and mentally abusing them. Slavery was not fun or sexy and horrendous acts like that should not be joked about. We all know that underwear ads and campaigns are usually over the top and highly sexualised but this one wins the prize for being the most tasteless we have ever seen. How did this idea develop and how come it is ok to associate underwear with slavery and the picking and treating of cotton?

This is not, however, the only photo of its kind. The full tbs catalogue can be viewed here [direct link to PDF] where more, and similar, photographs are presented. The one described above is featured on page 8 in the catalogue. Another photo shows a black woman sitting down with her legs spread apart (again in underwear) as she is pulling cotton. The title reads: processing the cotton. In yet another photo another black woman is sitting down as she is washing cotton. Here the title states: washing and dyeing. The women appear sweaty as they are working hard to produce the products. There is also a photo in which the women appear to be having fun, laughing and messing around.

The tbs slogan: It’s hard to improve perfect is also incredibly inappropriate in light of what the photos are showing. It can be read to suggest that slavery and abuse of black people is perfectly normal and that things were good back in the day when black women worked in factories, plantations and fields gathering cotton for the best interest of white slave owners. It is also incredibly patronising to portray that type of factory environment and to associate it with fun and laughter instead of the suffering that took place in reality during the time of imperialism and slavery.

Secondly, the advertisement is also patronising and inappropriate when considering the fact that many large corporations (in the clothing industry and elsewhere) often outsource their labour to women and men (and sometimes children) in other countries paying them next to nothing as the workers spend many hours beyond an eight hour working day processing goods that are sold in western nations. The tbs advertisement also reflects an inaccurate picture of today’s working environments in many factories around the world where slave like conditions are still present. The associations to slavery in the tbs campaign extends beyond the concepts of greed and monetary gain and are also overtly dehumanizing and racist both in light of the history of slavery and the working conditions of many people around the world today.

This advertisement campaigns raises many questions: How far have we come in our fight against racism? Have advertisers and companies no moral compass that would lead them to believe that a campaign such as this is racist and completely demeaning considering the brutal history of slavery and struggles and hardships of so many black slaves? Has it become ok to commercialise and sexualise anything in order to gain attention, publicity and to make money? As mentioned above, this advertisement campaign is probably the worst we have ever seen, and we hope that others too will react, and that collectively, we can take action against future campaigns such as this one.

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Elin Weiss has a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies. Hennie Weiss is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Sociology. Their interests include feminism, gender, the sexualisation of women and the portrayal of women in media.

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Image “Human Right” from riacale’s Flickr photostream (Creative Commons).

The image shows a stylised image of a person sitting on a dove above the text of the First Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

Comments From You

anywavewilldo // Posted 25 February 2012 at 4:36 pm

yep it’s a nasty work up of the hypersexualised Black woman / women of colour. It’s for men’s underwear too and so the sexy slavey bikinis are not even the product. I mean FFS they’re selling *thermals*

Laurel // Posted 25 February 2012 at 6:38 pm

WHAT??

at least with the overtly dark/sexy chains and shit i can understand some weird BDSM aspect, but theyre really treating this as if its just some cute sweet lighthearted sexy THING?? WHAT IS THAT?? YAY cotton picking! WTF?

Schnee // Posted 25 February 2012 at 10:21 pm

So, basically, even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is sexist. Great.

Shadow // Posted 27 February 2012 at 12:50 pm

But perhaps these women are ‘choosing’ to be depicted as men’s disposable sexual service stations. So therefore we should not question or challenge the fact these photos are all common ones which are to be located in those men’s pornographic magazines such as Nuts, Zoo, FHM etc. Men’s sexual exploitation of women is natural and normal is it not? To link these images with slavery is to make the claim ‘black women are being depicted as slaves’ which conveniently ignores how male supremacist system commonly portrays all women irrespective of their race/ethnicity/class etc. as men’s disposable sexualised commodities. Therefore if females are men’s disposable sexualised commodities this means they are not human so therefore analogy to slavery does not exist. If women are not human they cannot be enslaved by men and given malestream marketing mantra\ is always to depict women as ‘men’s dehumanised sexualised commodities’ because male sexual exploitation of women is just good marketing is it not – never promotion/condoning dehumanisation of women. Remember too men’s sexual exploitation of women as ‘sex’ always sells does it not? After all sexual exploitation of men never sells products because men know their rights and have ensured their rights include being default human and autonomous beings. Women have yet to be accorded their fundamental right of human status.

Male supremacist system defines all women as ‘men’s dehumanised sexualised commodities and to just focus on race is to ignore the reality of the common denominator all women experience within male supremacist systems which is we are not human because men have always claimed they alone are the default humans.

Ergo – this latest advertising campaign reinforces yet again men’s claim that women of all races/ethnicities are men’s dehumanised sexualised commodities and of course there is always the cop-out excuse – ‘these women are choosing to be depicted as men’s disposable sexual service stations’ so that is okay then is it not? We can ignore how these misogynistic images reinforce men’s lies that women are not human but just men’s disposable sexual service stations.

ephemeradical // Posted 3 March 2012 at 9:50 am

Since white people often think that slavery stopped a million years ago and is therefore no longer relevant and totally fair game, I’m not surprised. Plus the hypersexualisation of black women (that anywavewilldo mentioned) that we’ve had going on since we had to justify slavery and create the ideal of the pure white woman.

But also, [Since when are associations to slavery sexy and fun?] – since power imbalances were massively sexualised and eroticised in our cultures. Which is why capitalism, white supremacy and partriarchy are the most comfortable bed-fellows ever. This isn’t about the ‘moral compass’ of the people who came up with the ad – although it definitely is dubious – it’s about recognising that, while black women and others have fought for some hard-won gains, we still live in a society that is primarily structured by those three forces. This is just one particularly blatant piece of evidence for that.

ephemeradical // Posted 5 March 2012 at 8:17 am

They’ve been ‘sexy and fun’ since our society sexualised power imbalances; i.e. this is part of an extremely common wider pattern, seen clearly in porn, trafficking and in other daily oppressions of poor black women in particular. The sexualisation of power imbalances is why patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy are extremely happy bedfellows.

Understanding this advert is not about investigating the ‘moral compass’ of the people behind it – although I’m sure it’s dubious – but about understanding that we live in a society fundamentally structured by capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy, of which this advert is just a particularly obvious example.

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