EUSA election campaigning started today, and along with the flurry of candidates’ placards, leaflets and t shirts a new set of EUSA’s own posters also went up in and around our union buildings. These posters aimed to publicise the elections, increase turnout and make voters consider why they vote for who they vote for. The aims of this project are obviously important and good, and in recent years EUSA has been criticised for not publicising elections and referendums as well as they could have; so this new effort is a step in the right direction. However, two of the set of posters that EUSA produced were incredibly problematic and have been considered by many today as a step in the wrong direction.
The two posters in question are the pink and blue “He’s got” and “She’s got” posters. There is first of all obviously the issue with tired, old gendering of “girly pink” and “manly blue” and the reinforcement of a gender binary. This is problematic for many reasons, not least because of its complete ignorance of gender minorities such as trans* people and people who do not define as a gender within that binary. If we are serious about our democratic structures being appealing and accessible to people in liberation groups, we cannot exclude groups of people by making assumptions on how people define, especially not when those people have been historically oppressed and still face very real oppression and discrimination in their lives.
The posters are set out like a ballot paper, the idea being that they are encouraging the audience to consider how they choose who to vote for. They have listed on the “He’s Got” poster that the man/male candidate has got “The answers”, “No idea” and “A nice poster”. On the “She’s Got” version, the female/ woman candidate has got “cool ideas”, “no clue” and “a great smile”.
There are some quite glaring differences in what has been attributed to the candidates. The male/ man candidate having the answer vs the female/ woman candidate having some cool ideas- the male gendered poster is assertive, if elected he will come in and fix everything, he’s got the answers, he knows what to do, he’s going to get the job done. The female gendered poster is a less encouraging picture. She has some cool ideas, they’re abstract and they might be nice if they happen and work, but they’re just ideas, nothing concrete, no plans, just ideas.
The second, and possibly least problematic, are the “no clue” vs “no idea” lines. While there is nothing inherently gendered in the word “clue” as opposed to “idea” members of Edinburgh Uni Feminist society took issue with it, one member describing it as “’no clue’ just sounds so much more airy fairy and ditsy than ‘no idea’. To me having no clue sounds like you have no clue what’s going on with anything, whereas having no idea it sounds like you have no idea about something- one specific thing”.
The most worrying is the last on the list, the male gendered poster says he’s got “a good poster” while the female gendered poster says she’s got “a great smile”. The woman candidate is valuable for her physical attractiveness, and how closely she resembles a beauty ideal, against the man candidate who is valued for a skill that he has used to make a poster. This line actively objectifies women, valuing us for our physical appearance, whilst valuing men for their skills (or at least ability to access and utilise others’ skills).
These posters are in my eyes a very clear breach of EUSA’s Safe Spaces Policy, Zero Tolerance Policy and commitment to widening participation in democratic structures for members of historically oppressed and marginalised groups, such as women and gender minorities. I am not for a minute suggesting that it is posters like these that actively stop women from running for positions in EUSA, but they certainly contribute to a culture where women are taught that we are not assertive enough for positions of authority where we may have to make decisions, that we’re too emotional to really be able to deal with big issues and get work done, that we’re not pretty so people might not vote for us, that we’re too pretty so people might think we just get by on our looks. All these are frankly antiquated views of women that are still very much prevalent in our society. It is shocking and disturbing that EUSA’s marketing department feels it is appropriate to play on these very damaging perceptions to make a snappy poster.
Publicising elections, creating debate- these are good things. These are things I support. These are things I do myself and I am glad that EUSA is making an effort. But this effort cannot be at the expense of alienating and contributing to the oppression of members of our student body. The head of marketing at EUSA told me that she had wanted to stir up debate by being “a little provocative”. Being sexist is not a little provocative, it is being sexist. I don’t believe it was the intention of the designers to be sexist, but the marketing department now needs to apologise for what is quite clearly sexism, whether intended or not.
We do have a big job on our hands, we have to try and get as many people involved in EUSA as possible, we want high voting turnouts and we want people who vote to be making really considered and educated decisions based on candidates’ manifestos. But this must not come at the expense of our principles for liberation and equality. EUSA must be committed to really challenging sexism and misogyny no matter how subtle or unsubtle, no matter how large or small.
If you need to use sexism to advertise democracy, we’re all a bit fucked.