Bringing Sexism Back!

Paul L dineen

Paul L dineen

Katherine Dunn wrote about sexism in Denmark for her weekly column ‘Klaphat‘, the Klaphat Dispatch is a column about Danish society published at JutlandStation.

Ah – to be a woman in Denmark!

Welcome to the land of the blonde (only sometimes!), the beautiful (always!), and the highly educated/statistically safe/politically represented/maternity-leave endowed women!

It’s a magical place, after all, a country where XX-chromosomes can be found both in the head office at Christiansborg, and nude, on a billboard, advocating for increased youth internship placements using only a coy smile and a sexually aggressive tag line.

Wait – what? 

HK's advertise "I am seeking "

HK’s advertisement: “I am seeking an internship “

 This week, the youth branch of a Danish union called HK was caught in a minor furor over a series of ads made by their youth  department advocating more youth internship placements. 

After all, education, and its link to suitable employment are  serious  topics, for serious people – and in tertiary education in this country, the majority of these people are women.

 However, in the latest edition of “Tone Deaf Advertising 101″, the ad featured a naked young woman (and a man!) holding  placards that read, “Take me – It’s easier than you think”

 Of course, for purposes of gender equality, let’s remember there was a naked gentleman as well. But in news reports, the  poor dude’s nudity was left largely un-contemplated, while the female model’s name, age, occupation and personal comments  had the focus. She said the ads were created to make a “little splash in the duck pond”, but nonetheless, called the uproar “old-  fashioned”, which is surely the nudie-ad version of having your cake and eating it too. (The union has since pulled the ad.)

(Alternate PR suggestion: “we are surprised that our innocent linking of sex and youth employment created a stir, as we now believe that had we asked the model to be straddling her master’s diploma instead, we would have sent a far more effective message.”)

To check that my queasy feelings had cultural validity, I asked my friend Minna Julia Kolte, who recently wrote a column on young people and unemployment for Politiken. Coincidentally, she’s also a volunteer writer for Danmarks Kvindesamfund – the Danish Women’s Society – the oldest association of its kind in the world.

“It is a very dangerous signal to connect sexuality with employment challenges. I would say that it potentially makes an already vulnerable group even more vulnerable,” she said. “In a hard-strapped economy, where we’re all encouraged to do “whatever” to get any kind of paid – or more likely unpaid – job, I am very sorry to see the union using nudity to “sell” their members.”

She also pointed out that the traditional link to women’s bodies and getting paid is, well – let’s just say it’s among the oldest tricks in the book.

If you find yourself yawning at the fact that a woman’s body was used to sell something – an internship, a tube of toothpaste, a deluxe riding lawn mower with double-wide seats, what’s the difference? – join the club. 

If you grew up in a Western country, you’re probably beyond noticing that your local high street is basically wallpapered in close-ups of 13-year-old models’ inner thighs.

But wait, this isn’t just one girl holding a placard in front of her money-fuelling mammaries!

Let’s review the recent evidence: the same day, an ad was okayed of a bikini-clad woman on the side of a cleaning van, alongside a catchy slogan about her lack of cleaning abilities.

Last month, a minor controversy over the uniform for a burger chain called ‘Hot Buns’, in which the (allegedly all-female) waiting staff are required to wear only tank tops and hot pants.

So, while the rest of the world is looking to Denmark, a country which is consistently posted near the top of every global gender equality index available (in this index, the country is eighth), the Danes have decided to import a bottom-heavy version of Hooters. (This is a notoriously trashy American restaurant which will henceforth be known as “Hot Buns”, for boobs.)

Other days, other stories: a private clinic sends a naked, surgically enhanced woman (with yet another placard over her lady-parts) down the main shopping street in Copenhagen for an ad, complete with photo-snapping tourists and the requisite gawking construction workers.

Last June, DR even launched a self-titled show starring the former jazz-musician Blachman, in which he and a male host reminisced that women’s bodies had been un-discussed for too long – on which planet, but sure – and brought a naked, silent woman into the studio for each episode. (Word was out on whether this was sexist or just kind of lame.)

To be fair, in Denmark, nudity is not a huge deal – a nipple here, a butt cheek there, what’s the scandal? I even have a token of this on my bulletin board at home: a postcard from a cover of the 1970s classic “Kvinde Kend Din Krop” (Women Know Your Body), a happy-hygiene manual featuring naked, healthy female bodies. Bodies that are shilling good health and self-knowledge – not hamburgers, or fake boobs, or employment opportunities. It’s a book about women’s bodies, not just wallpapered with them. (The book is still a classic, and in fact, a play based on the book is currently performing in Copenhagen.)

This is the Denmark I love: the Denmark that bears it all because, hey, bodies are great, and they’re also not a big deal (and when it’ summer, it’s only going to last five weeks, so screw clothes!)

Detractors may say that Denmark has a sense of humour, high gender-equality ratings, and free-lovin’ ladies who can do what they will. All of this is true, but it doesn’t make a stupid ad funny, and it definitely doesn’t stop it from being a tasteless cliché.

In Denmark, maybe a 19 year old girl asking employers to “take her” on a billboard is just a tacky ad, and maybe a woman walking naked through a main shopping street lined with gawkers is just a low publicity stunt, made for those glorious days when it feels like sexism could use a lazy comeback.

But there are 128 countries below Denmark on that one – incomplete – index alone. One hundred and twenty eight countries (including my own), which look to Denmark as a model of how relatively safe, easy, empowering and fun it can feel to be a woman.

So come on, Denmark, show us how it’s done.

 By Katherine Dunn, JutlandStation.

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