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.