Saturday, May 2, 2009

My thoughts on Manicure for the Cure

by Josh Franklin

On Thursday in the Daily Princetonian, Grace Remington and our own co-editor Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux wrote about important concerns about the "Gentlemen, Save Second Base" campaign for Manicure for the Cure in their opinion piece entitled "A conversation about more than just cancer." They argue that the ads, which appealed to men for their support for breast cancer research and treatment on the basis of the sexual importance of breasts, are "offensive" and "tasteless" because they objectify women. Many have reacted negatively towards these criticisms, saying that the slogan is merely a joke; notably, the event's organizers have made us aware that the "Save Second Base" campaign is appreciated by breast cancer survivors: "...the slogan was meant to be lighthearted and fun; in fact, many breast cancer survivors have advocated using this slogan as a way to humorously raise awareness and funds." I feel that we ought to discuss this state of affairs, one that seems far too common, where feminists' legitimate criticisms of gender phenomena are met with the frustrating evasion, "can't you take a joke?"

First of all, I think that the critique of this campaign that has been made is absolutely correct. By highlighting the sexual function of breasts (and especially by directing that sexual function exclusively towards men), the ads reinforce the sexualization and objectification of women. But what I want to disagree with is the assertion that the slogan is tasteless or offensive; the truth is that it is funny, and its power to offend is mild.

Not that this should be the case. However, if the posters were truly offensive, or not funny, then there would be no gender critique to speak of. I think that this is a point that the counter-campaign made especially well with their posters that said "Save the Male G-Spot". Nobody thinks that sexualizing prostate cancer is funny, or even mildly clever; however, we seem to find sexualizing women with breast cancer hillarious. When Amelia and Grace write that the ads are offensive, I think that it would be more accurate to write that they ought to be offensive. As feminists, we strive towards a common moral sense that is offended by the objectification of women. What's problematic here is that we (and by we, I'm making a generalization about the broad reaction on campus--clearly, it excludes many people) don't find it offensive.

I want to reiterate that I agree that these posters sexualize and objectify women, and that this is bad. What I want to advocate for here is a discourse on gender issues that moves beyond emotion-laden categories of "funny" and "offensive". These are categories that have been mobilized by conservative politics in a variety of situations: women's sexuality, homosexuality, pornography, and generally free expression about sexuality have all been decried as offensive and suppressed. I think the fact that the sexual humor of breast cancer is an important support mechanism for survivors is a fact that many who have criticized this campaign have been too ready to dismiss. Yes, the campaign appropriates ideas that are an integral part of a culture and world that oppresses women. Yet the symbols of this culture are the only way that we know how to live. I think it's important to become aware of this oppression and work to change it. Yet I feel uncomfortable using such emotionally charged (and analytically empty) language about offense. I don't know how, but I want to try to think about a way of speaking about gender and sexuality and oppression with more subtlety (because I love subtlety), but more importantly, with more compassion, especially for women like the beneficiaries of the Manicure for the Cure.

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