Talk About Mudflaps

If you haven’t yet heard (which would surprise me, because I’m coming to this party a bit late), the Wyoming Libraries have started an advertising campaign to promote the auto repair database ChiltonLibrary.com. They created an image that references cheesecakey mudflaps often seen on trucks. I can’t say I’m outright offended by this, but I do think it’s very problematic, and the discussions I’ve seen and been a part of have so far been no less problematic.

First of all, I’m not writing this to say how I think other people should feel about the advertising campaign. This is purely about my reactions.

Secondly, let me say this: I’m a heterosexual American male. If I said I didn’t enjoy looking at images of objectified, sexualized women, I’d be lying. I don’t think objectification is inherently bad (although many forms of objectification are degrading and damaging), and I don’t think associating women with sex is inherently bad (although there are many ways that women are associated with sex that are degrading and damaging).

But here’s the thing: the cheesecake mudflap that adorns some trucks is loaded with context. It doesn’t exist in some idealized vacuum, and anything that references it is going to inherit that baggage. That doesn’t mean that the image can’t be appropriated and reconfigured, but I don’t think the Wyoming Libraries have done that.

“Oh, relax,” you might say, “it’s just meant humorously.” Which is a whole lot of bunk. There’s nothing “just” about humor. Humor is a powerful thing, and in the context of society, it’s very serious. Ask any writer or actor; humor is much harder to do well than drama is. And the point of humor is never “just to be funny,” in some kind of void where it’s removed from and immune to criticism or serious discussion. The point of humor is to hold a mirror up to society, to showcase our warts and neuroses, to spark serious contemplation and discussion. Do I think it’s possible to make fun of stereotypes successfully? Of course I do–look at The Office or Blazing Saddles for good examples of this. But I don’t think the Wyoming Libraries mudflap image pulls that kind of humor off.

Besides, the Wyoming Libraries mudflap image is advertising. Advertising may be humorous, but it’s never about humor or social critique, it’s about marketing, it’s about persuading people to use a particular product. Advertising can be fun and cheeky, but messing with offensive stereotypes is a tightrope walk, and it’s here that, for me, the Wyoming Libraries take a tumble.

As I said, there’s also a problem (which is no fault of the Wyoming Libraries’) with talking about the mudflap image. In the short time that this image has been shown around the internet, many of the discussions I’ve seen and been a part of have been troubled by behaviors that shut down intelligent and useful discussion, rather than facilitate it. I’ve seen accusations that people offended by the mudflap image are going out of their way to find something to be offended by. I’ve seen the suggestion that some people are “taking it too seriously,” as if “humorous” means “shallow” and “not worthy of serious discussion”–an insult to humorists everywhere. It seems to me the mature, constructive thing to do when someone voices offense over something you’re not offended by is to simply ask, “Why does it offend you?” and listen to the response with an open mind.

You can’t do anything in public without offending someone, and if the Wyoming Libraries are fine with some people being offended by their advertising…well, okay. And if you’re one of the people who aren’t offended, if you think the image is clever and funny…well, okay. I know the intent behind the advertising was good, but I think it misses the mark and gets tangled up in the issues it’s meant to poke fun at.

ADDENDUM: Karen G. Schneider asks more questions and points out more problems that were in my head but didn’t make it into this post, so please go read her post.

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17 thoughts on “Talk About Mudflaps

  1. Good post. My feminist sex-positive woman-loving self struggles to even have these discussions, so I’m glad to hear you weigh in.

  2. Thanks, Karen! My feminist sex-positive woman-loving self also struggles with this stuff, as does my feminist sex-positive wife.

  3. There is a fine-line between sexy and sexist and I don’t think a library campaign is really the place to test those boundaries.

    I consider myself to be a sex-positive feminist and a sexy librarian but that doesn’t mean I want naked ladies representing the services I provide.

    It makes me wonder what exactly are they are “shifting gears” toward?

  4. The real question is, did the ad work? Sex sells, this isn’t anything new. If they wanted visibility they got it! What is the purpose of any ad? To sell a product or service. Did the ad increase their business? If it did it worked, whether anyone likes it or not. Never underestimate the power of mindlessness, often times it’s what the masses long for…

  5. I don’t think that’s the real question. Even if the advertising works, it still doesn’t justify the use of the image.

  6. All vehicles should have 2 mud flaps. If you want to be fair have one female and one a beefcake. Or, just have “Get smart. Read. Use your libraries” on the mud flap. Who is paying for these?

  7. Thanks for saying what I was a little afraid to say. Is it a Gen X thing to be sensitive to this stuff? Is that a good thing? I cringed when I first saw the ad and my reaction didn’t get better… despite the fact I REALLY admire and respect many who sang its praises.

  8. Darlene, I would love to see trucks with mudflaps that said “Use Your Library” on them. (And thanks for commenting! That’s my mother-in-law, everyone!)

  9. Jenn, is it a Gen X thing? I’m thinking it’s not. (Hey, Karen, is this a Gen X thing?) But it probably is an upbringing thing. I know that coming from a feminist family had was a strong factor in my reaction to the image and its use. And I also admire and respect people who have liked or been apathetic to the image. I haven’t lost my respect or admiration for them, but I just can’t look at the image and think “Great! Thumbs up!” or “Meh! What’s the big deal?”

  10. LOL… Only someone who works for a non-profit would ever think like that! Any ad executive would tell you that you often need to alienate hundreds or thousands to gain million$… And their shareholders thank them.

  11. Pingback: lis.dom » Blog Archive » mudflap woman

  12. Yes, that’s one of the reasons why I work in public service and not in the corporate world. I think there are more important things in life than profits and capital, and I don’t think the ends justify the means.

  13. Side note: Please tell me the title of this post comes from that Spinal Tap song.

  14. Ray, you win a kewpie doll! It does indeed come from “Big Bottom” by Spinal Tap.

  15. Very insightful; I’m frequently torn on this topic as well, and it’s difficult to even find active, rational discussion about the odd role sex and promotion-by-sexual-imagery holds in our society.

  16. I’m coming to this discussion very late, but I have two cents to add. Obviously, from my name, you can tell I’m a woman. I am also a graduate of the University of Wyoming, so I lived in the state for four years. I didn’t find the mudflap image offensive. I thought the use of the image to be a humorous way to advertise the Chilton auto repair database. These bumper stickers were sent to auto repair shops with information about the database, not plastered on billboards. Frankly, the half-naked women in their underwear on the billboards in Times Square bother me more.

  17. You may be coming in late, Nicole, but I appreciate your input. I think this is a complicated issue. I was obviously offended by the image, but it would be even more offensive if I were to say that all women should be just as offended as I was. Thank you for chiming in with your point of view!

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