Union faces criticism over Women's Day poster

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Southampton University Student Union (SUSU) have provoked an angry response from some students after promoting a ‘women’s day’ event with a poster featuring several bikini clad models. Women’s day, celebrated for over a century, is a feminist event, supposed to be about promoting the equal treatment of women and women’s rights in society. By advertising the day with a poster that featured what some would see as objectifying and degrading images, many campaigners feel their cause has been undermined.
Azeezat Johnson, a student, has written the following draft letter of complaint to the union:

After seeing this poster, some friends and I were surprised by the depiction of woman in an event that was meant to represent women’s day. As students interested in having a well-rounded university experiences that allows us to understand and explore the infinite depths of our combined cultural and social histories and identities, we were initially excited by the idea of students having a women’s day programme. However, after seeing the poster we felt that our university had not only let us down, but the movement that women’s day should represent.


First, we feel that it is important to understand what women’s day is supposed to mean. As an event that began in 1909, it was supposed to symbolise the improvements that women have made in our social, political and economic sphere, as well as a way to show the respect and dignity that women are too often denied in the public sphere with billboards portraying us as objects rather than individuals. It runs in tangent with feminism which has fought a continuous battle to respect a woman’s right to choose to become whatever she wanted to be whether a model, a housewife, a lecturer or a business executive whilst respecting her as a female individual working from within a framework that allows her to make these choices.


This is why the poster confused, angered and disappointed us and so many others that we spoke to. There are several failings of the poster that must be addressed.


1. The proud history that woman’s day and feminism was not even alluded to, which ultimately means that despite the other problems, it fails at its onset to capture the message of the event that it was supposed to promote.


2. The use of stereotypically beautiful female bodies, which could have been transferred to every and any other poster for events rather than one about women’s day. An ongoing battle for feminism is the understanding that different women’s bodies are beautiful and that as human beings who come in different sizes and shape we deserve and demand to be treated as equals no matter what our sizes. We do NOT need to be a certain size or figure to be categorised (another problem) as beautiful. Any poster that does not respect that is furthering this demoralisation of women, and this particular poster that was supposed to show how University of Southampton celebrates and respects these differences not only fails, but exceedingly disappoints.


3. It is unclear why Robert Pattinson and Ewan McGregor appear on this poster, other than a representation of stereotypical female “eye-candy”. This furthers the disrespect of women as full identities that want more than the teenage “heartthrobs” and insults not only us, but also men in general, as they then need to fit into that false stereotype to be seen as “attractive”.


4. It is also interesting to us how the men in these posters are (from what we can see) fully dressed whilst the women are scantily dressed in bikinis. Note, it is our belief that as individuals it is your right to express yourself by dressing in anyway that you feel from a bikini to a nun’s habit. But in these instances it furthers the objectification of women wearing little to nothing as being “sexy”. This angers us when we are forced to deal with it in the media and larger society in general, talk-less of an advertisement for an event made to promote the necessity to stamp out this objectification.


5. With the little information that is actually on the poster describing this event, it becomes clear that it is not a celebration of women for what we could become, but a further attempt to categorise us as children that would be more than happy with the occasional sweets, sing-star competitions and cocktails. Considering the inspiring history of women’s day and feminism, this lack of recognition of our potential as females is what insults the most.


6. There was no further information provided about the actual discussions or talks that we assume it was meant to promote at 11:00 on the 9th March, and as we were frustrated at the poster and wished to address it during the discussion, we went to the union concourse and we saw no sign of this event taking place, which means that the forum in which we and other like-minded students could discuss and learn more about women’s day was not even provided towards the end.

Celebrating the tradition of women’s day within the University is to be applauded, although many will feel that more harm than good has been done by the campaign. It would be difficult to imagine a similar set of stereotypes being used to promote a day about race or sexuality, and campaigners feel it is time for the Union to adopt a more progressive stance with respect to gender.
While the event has now passed, students are attempting to draw the Union into discourse about the poster. Anyone wishing to further pursue the issue should let the president know what they think.

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Discussion26 Comments

  1. avatar

    a load of old tosh. Women should also be allowed to be on posters loooking beautifull. The Mens day was equally ‘degrading’ to men but it seems as though it has not drawn any complaints. Get a sense of humour. Then write something worth reading please.

    Peter Apps
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    It’s not really an issue about rights. I think a lot of people would agree that the persistence of the media to represent women as purely sex objects is an obvious problem. It’s definitely a part of creating the environment where a lot of girls feel they are judged far too much by their physical appearance. Women’s day should be an event which goes against that current, or at least opens up the opportunity for debate about it. I think for a lot of people, the poster was just one irony too far.
    And incidentally, the men’s day poster also attracted criticism for similar reasons, although admittedly not as much.

  2. avatar

    Get a sense of humour? Perhaps that’s what you think people should have told to the suffragettes… Or any other stereotyped group for that matter.

    And a lot of people have complained about both posters, so clearly rather a lot of people need to get a sense of humour according to you.

  3. avatar

    Azeerat Johnson what a fantastic response… Well done to you! Someone has to stand up against this misogynistic, mainly white middle class undergraduate students’ union.

    Getting drunk and shagging girls might be “funny” but it certainly doesn’t tickle my sense of humour

    To Laura Peas: If someone had a big poster of a load of “minstrels” promoting Black History Month, I’m sure your infantile mind may find that funny, but oppressive stereotypes are rarely funny to those who are the subjects of your laughs!

  4. avatar

    I’ve only just had a chance to look at the poster myself (was going from friends description) and it doesn’t mention going out and ‘shagging girls and getting drunk’ anywhere.

    And perhaps the images on the poster were an opportunity to show off the female form and celebrate it? I’m sure that whoever designed them was aiming for a female market and therefore wasn’t suggesting we are just ‘sex objects’.

  5. avatar

    People are taking this way too far. Why does a poster which tries to encourage females to attend a Women’s day event (to celebrate women) get compared to suffragettes? Seriously…there is no implication of lack of respect for women at all, the poster and day is about attracting women to come and bringing attention to Women’s day…to celebrate women. People should spend more time celebrating the good things rather than getting caught up in having a go at the bad things. What is a complaint really going to achieve here?

  6. avatar

    I suppose the suggestion would be implicit from the fact that they were models posing in bikinis. I don’t think the Union can really twist out of the fact that that is obviously a sexualised image. Regardless of whether it was aimed at women or men makes no difference. If the media uses images like that as aspirational images for women, it creates a lot of the problems women face today: image related self esteem issues, judgement on the basis of appearance and objectification by men to name a few.
    Women’s day is supposed to be an empowering event for the female population at the University. It shouldn’t be a part of the problem.

    I would imagine that those who have complained would like to see the Union adopt a more progressive stance with respect to gender issues in the future. Maybe if they understand how many people have an issue with it and why, they won’t make the same mistake again.

    Susie
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    Ok I understand the idea of using Women in bikinis is a sexualised image, but that is JUST A POSTER. Advertising is designed to attract attention, and in my opinion this was to attract female attention and encourage women to come to the day..and encourage participation from non-traditional women to women’s day…not just those already interested in feminism. Perhaps it was a bad idea, but I really think this has blown out of proportion and I wonder why people always pick up on the bad things not the good things going on. I’m sure there was a lot of good intentions behind the day, and from what I’m aware of, there were good talks on the day too, so why are the good things fro the day being forgot? As I said before, everyone always picks up on the bad things and never comments on the good things. We’re all a part of the students union, yet people only get involved when they want to complain and I find these sort of articles very tedious.

  7. avatar

    Over sexualised? Are you kidding me? This is completely frought with over-analysis and when you over-analyse you can draw whatever conclusion you like, which you have done. This is hardly even a debate. The fact is. There are no minstrels promoting black history month and there is no mention of getting drunk and shagging girls, so lets put that neither here nor there. Yes if this was the case it would be completely inappropriate, as it is, neither of these two charges occurred. It’s a falacious anaolgy rooted in hyperbole. The fact is it’s not the same thing.

    Regardless of this, it’s not a case of a bunch of men sitting in a room and this was a campaign run by the womens officer and over-seen by the Vice-President Welfare and Societies….both women. There maybe women in bikini’s and stereotypical “eye candy” but do you not see the benefit in women taking over the ownership of these things? There’s only so much logic in being different for the sake of being different, as soon as you say that women shouldn’t do these things, feminists become as bad as the chauvinists who say they should. Being allowed to take pride in wearing a bikini, not because that’s the role they have been assigned by male dominated society, but because they want to is as good a reason as any. It appears you are the only ones dictating what women should and should not do. That’s not only patronizing, at a push, it’s chauvinistic. Let’s bare in mind, womens day is about women, not chauvinism or feminism. I will indulge anyone in the semantics of this if they want, but our campaign was for women by women and that’s indisputible.

    Despite this, I would like to apologise to anyone who genuinely caused offense by these posters. They were meant in good humour with huge helpings of irony.

    Kat S
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    Steve O’Reilly: “This is hardly even a debate.”
    Well yes it is, which is why the article has generated so many responses. I don’t agree with all the comments, but a number of people obviously find this an issue, and everyone should be encouraged to debate. Instead of being so flippant and dismissive, you should welcome replies and deal with them instead of declaring that there is little to discuss. Overall Azeerat’s points were fair and well worded, and should be responded to directly.

    Some of the comments about Black History Month may seem hyperbolic to you, but “the fact is” (as you like to say), you would probably not be so defensive and biased if the poster was about race or religious issues. And just because the posters were meant “with good humour” does not in any way justify offence caused, or serve as a handy excuse. Nor does the point that they were made “for women by women” mean that they are far less offensive.

    “There’s only so much logic in being different for the sake of being different.”
    I’m not sure what you mean by this point, could you clarify?

    I agree that if women want to wear a bikini, they should feel free to wear a one (comes in handy when swimming…) And I don’t think any of the previous posts were trying to dictate what all women should wear. BUT that doesn’t mean pictures of semi-naked women are therefore appropriate for a women’s day poster. Oh and if you’d bothered to do any research, you’d have found out that [International] Women’s Day IS about feminism, which is explained in Azeerat’s comments that you have clearly not taken the time to read…

    Nice of you to add an apology at the end though. (Please note that I mean this with “huge helpings of irony”, Steve!) Look forward to this debate continuing, whatever the outcome.

    Becky
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    The point about being flippant is that arguing over a poster is stupid. Especially when from the argument about a poster you make remarks that it’s comparative to having minstrels on a poster about black history, and as by getting so het up in going on and on and on about a poster, people are forgetting all the good things that was done for women’s day.
    International Women’s day is about feminism, but Women’s day in SUSU is about women’s health, and as far as I’m aware it has never actually been specified that women’s day in SUSU is about feminism. (correct me if I am wrong) In fact, last year women’s day wasn’t even near international women’s day, but the decision this year was made to align the two. People should be more open minded than claiming it’s all about and should only be all about feminism; I would have thought feminists would want to draw in women who may not at first glance be interested in feminism anyway. (Although yes I understand the point that arguably the poster (which unintentionally caused offense) may not have been the best way to do this.)

    Ok, so people interpreted the poster in the wrong way as to how it was possibly meant, but getting this caught up IS hyperbolic, especially when he’s said he’s sorry for offense caused, as it was not intended. If the offense was intended then it’s completely out of order, but it never was. Even so, Steve has apologised if offense was caused, despite having a differing opinion to those complaining about the poster so I don’t think he should be criticised for not caring about the issue – he has recognised it caused offense and said sorry. (and I believe a personal response IS being written to Azeezat from Sophie)
    I agree a debate is healthy and I think Steve was engaging in the debate – surely he is allowed to defend what he sees as wrong, just as you have?(And in fact it was never even a poster designed by Steve himself!). But I’m also sad to see that only bad things are reported. The news doesn’t seem to mention the good things that go on, only the criticisms, which is not really healthy – we are all part of the students union we should work together, not against each other (especially when an apology has been made, and a formal one to Azeezat is being written.)

    The point is – the debate should focus on the fact that the poster caused offense, but this was completely unintentional, and the debate should not get over-worked with anything else.

    The women’s officer position will be up for grabs at Union Council next term; so if you did find this offensive, you can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

    Please note, all comments are my personal opinion, not those of myself in an official capacity!

    Jennifer
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    why is arguing over this poster so stupid?
    although i am one of the friends Azeezat refers to her in her letter, who was shocked and offended by the poster. in some ways i am glad of it, as it is being used in forums like this and in informal converstations all over campus to discuss the objectification of women and feminism in general and for me, no matter what peoples opinions, disscusions and debates can only be a positive thing. Yes apologises have been made and accepted and thats good, but it doesnt mean that this debate needs to be shut down.
    And in reference to the comments about this being ‘only a poster’. we can say that about a lot of things in society- this advert on the tube offends me because it promotes a one sided objectified view of women, this music video the same, this album cover, whatever. they may just be isolated images but altogether they reflect, promote and socialise a sexist ideology within our society which mainfests itself in all sorts of mediums and as a social science student i believe that the effects of these images are prevelent and far reaching- nothing is ever ‘just’ an image. and seeing this viewpoint as over analytical not only degrades and discredits social science research but is im afraid im my opinion just blindsighted ignorance about the powerful effects of images on all of our opinions and mindsets.

    in reference to Georges comment about ministrals being used to advertise black history month, what i got from that comment, and please feel free to correct me if this wasnt your intention. was that overtly racist or relgiously preducjiced images would (hopefully) not be tolerated so easily by the uni, and the fact that people cant see the womens day poster is offensive in the same way that minstrals would be, just proves to me how deeply ingrained sexist ideology is in society.

    Becky
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    My point that arguing about a poster is stupid, is because the poster is drumming up more comments than the day itself.

    Seeing that viewpoint as over-analytical is engaging in debate, not devaluing social sciences research and I never ignored the effect images can have on opinions and mindsets -but I simply said that this poster did not INTEND to offend, nor was should it be or have ever been the main focus of Women’s day – the day itself should have been the main focus. Images can have a powerful effect, I never disagreed with that, but i disagree with the fact that assumptions are being drawn, and I also disagree with how the poster is being compared to minstrels! Ok, you say posters would not be so tolerated if it was racist – but I’m sorry, minstrels are clearly racist, whereas women in bikinis can be viewed as women taking ownership and the line is not so distinct that women in bikinis is prejudiced.

    The point is that the poster didn’t intend to offend, and even despite no intention to offend, an apology has been given, so continuing to argue about it is futile. To Kat S- So they are seen as offensive by some people, they are equally not seen as offensive by others. And since there was no malice behind the posters, I do think it’s entirely acceptable to defend the reasons for the posters, yet apologise to those unintentionally offended by them.

  8. avatar

    Kat and susie have argued the point very clearly, and I don’t feel I have anything to add to what they’ve said. However I would like to respond to Becky’s claim that
    “The news doesn’t seem to mention the good things that go on, only the criticisms, which is not really healthy”
    The wessex scene and wessexblog are open student media. Anyone, including you, can forward articles to be published. If you don’t think the coverage is fair, or we miss significant events, then get in touch. I’m sure this blog would have published an aritcle about the positive things that happend on women’s day, but unfortunately no one wrote one! And as we’re all students with (clearly) reasonably good writing skills, anyone could have.
    I personally thought the poster was misjudged, and Azeerat, among others, asked me to write about it. I didn’t hear anything from anyone asking for other articles about women’s day, and to the best of my knowledge, no one else from the paper did either.

    Becky
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    Thanks for your comments Peter. I’ll make sure I write some articles on the positive things to be put up!

    I’d just like to clarify that it’s not that I think the media shouldn’t say when the Union does bad things, as of course it should – just that I think there should be a fair debate (as there has been) and also that there should be articles to show positive things not just negatives – but I will now make sure I write some positive articles to go in!

    Jennifer
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    Possibly this is because nothing actually happened on womens day, apart from a candy floss stand.
    The fact that the poster is the main focus could well be linked to the fact that the things advertised on it did not happen making the poster the only talking point.

    i understand that the poster did not intend to offend, although i find it sad that people did not realise it would. i was also not aiming all of my points at you Becky, but due to computor illitracy i could only work out how to reply rather then post!

    women in bikinis can be seen as ‘ownership’, just as can playboy, pole dancing and the rise of raunch culture. But I personally am of the same opinion as Ariel Levy in her fabulous book- Female Chaviounist Pigs. Whilst some women may find these things empowering, they are really promoting our implictness in our own oppression- women making sex objects of themselves and other women.
    The argument that feminism is redudant because we have gained all our demands and therefore can use sexist imagry in an ironic postmodern way for our own sexual gratification is im afriad false.
    We still have a long way to go and the imagry that we are attempting to reclaim still promotes the same old tired beauty and behaviour standards which the libbers were fighting against.
    whilst so called third wave feminists are ironically enjoying burlesque shows and pole dancing exercise classes. There overlooking that the female form there celebrating is that of the cliched-playboy bunny, and whilst debates on feminist friendly porn are important, they become irrelevant if we forget that whilst we may have the choice to view or not to view- trafficked women working on our streets to feed capitalist, patriarchal demands for sex, which burlesque and bikini clad images feed, do not.
    My point, perhabs not very well articulated on this friday afternoon is- that we need to get a bit more radical and stop trying to ‘make do’ and ‘liberate’ ourselves whilst still within a capatalist, patriachal society.
    when feminists in the west wear ‘girls rule’ slogan t-shirts and bright red lipstick that we have freely chosen and reflects our emanipatory mindset. It doesnt mean a dam thing when women in less developed countries are very unironically making them for us in sweat shops.

    Peter Apps
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    a thumbs up isn’t enough, this comment deserves someone saying how damn good it is, and how refreshing it is to hear someone say.
    jennifer, if you ever want to write for the wessex scene, you are very welcome.

  9. avatar
    Azeezat Johnson

    I would just like to respond to a couple of the comments that have been written about the letter of complaint.

    I think complaining in general is useful because it shows a desire to want things to become better at the university as no matter how well it is being run right now (and the SUSU have done some really great work this year) there’s always room for improvement. My friends and I felt that we should let them know how this advertisment for a day about women was an affront to a lot of the things women are fighting to eradicate. The hope in writing the letter of complaint was not just to complain about a poster but to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again. The fact that the Women’s officer and Sophie (VP Welfare and Societies) are acting quickly to respond to these problems shows that there was no ill-will intended. Nonetheless, I am happy that a discussion has opened up about whether or not it was offensive as it is always helpful in understanding the ways which women are/should be perceived.

    Steve, I think you’re missing the point by declaring feminists “as bad as chauvinists”. As was stated clearly in the letter, feminism is all about fighting for the right to be and wear anything you wish whether it be a swimsuit model or a lecturer. the problem that I and so many others had with the poster is that it represents women in the same stereotype that we have been trying to break out of for a long time. And the claim that women can “take ownership” of these stereotypes is ridiculous. How can you suggest that by boxing ourselves into the same stereotype that we have historically been boxed into we are making progress?

    I would agree with Susie that it is good to try to attract women that do not normally go to feminist meetings (although I don’t understand what you mean by “non-traditional” women – The use of a “traditional” woman is part of the problem here). But are we saying that the only way to attract more women to women’s day events is by perpetuating a stereotype? And if so, then don’t you think that is a sad state of affairs, reaffirming more than any the need to remove that stereotype?

    ALSO, a small point. My name. AzeeZat. Not Azeerat. Sounds weird otherwise.

    xx Sinéad Whelan
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    Fair play AzeeZat, Peter and Jennifer for creating a powerful voice for those students not comfortable enough or aware of the means of communicating things collectively they believe right/wrong at this university. Their messages are inspiring, intellectual and very well informed, a pleasure to read. I am also proud that students have commented in a dignified and polite manner.

    Debating, open-mindedness and critical discussion are so valuable for the student’s union and enable us to grow and develop our perceptions. We can learn off each other, allowing improvements at university and can create an environment where diverse views are respected. I believe that democratic freedom of press & speech are crucial for our university education, which should be empowering us. I propose, question-time style events could happen at university, to openly discuss SU matters, also to develop oral/ speech writing skills. Certainly some potential MP’s at Southampton 🙂 What do you think?

    At times im sure, the SU representatives may resent criticisms of the organisation they work for and im sure this can be difficult individually. However students want to support you & we value your efforts. Both Becky and Steve have been very good listeners/problem-solvers in the past (thank-you) and need to continue this in order to sustain credibility and complete your vocation as student representatives.

    A quick technicality: The media office that created the posters, probably thought the poster design was very amusing and delightful, consequently quick to print it.. The women’s officer strongly disliked the posters outcome and was very unhappy when told she could not redesign/print the posters. Showing a lack of communication and correct decision making, something which seems to me, usual in all round SU politics. Our values may be different but the union should strive to incorporate multiple ideas in it’s media and representation.

    In the future, I hope that the union sabbaticals alongside students can create a better consciousness to gender equality issues. Perhaps attend some political societies events on campus, whom are particularly informative about female objectification & other gender issues. They include the socialist students/ feminists/ labour/ amnesty international.

    We started collecting money for women experiencing domestic violence, during International Women’s Week, on campus. Through an organisation called Women’s Aid- so please do check it out online and do some
    thing very valuable by donating. The Socialist Student have collected £100 so far, which is a great achievement.

    http://www.womensaid.org.uk/landing_page.asp?section=000100010007&sectionTitle=How+you+can+help+us

    Many Thanks

  10. avatar

    Very interesting discussion going on! If anybody would like to write it up into an actual blog post please feel free.

    Just a quick note – we are all trying to be journalists on here, and while sometimes we do make mistakes (we are still learning!) reporting is our aim. We do not decide to write something negative about anything, or something positive, just to put something negative or positive out there. We try our best to report on situations and provide information, just as journalists are meant to do. Anyone can be a blog writer and currently there is only a little human contact between us, but at the core there is only that one rule – report.

  11. avatar
    rasper mckellen

    Not surprised someone had a good rant at the womens day poster. Poster was an epic fail on all accounts.
    I found poster confusing and so did quite a few other. Still have no idea as to why two male models were included on it. Poster wasnt funny, interesting or even informative, probably a friday afternoon job.

    Does anyone have a link to picture, or can make one, or so we others can actually see how it?

  12. avatar

    Compare, contrast: the Mens’ Day poster. Objectification of the male form in that? Nope. Emphasis on male self-assertiveness? You bet. In fact – and I speak as someone who is far from an ‘alpha male’ in most respects, and would only have attended Mens’ Day for the FIFA competition (and lost, and lost badly) – if anything I found the posters for that event to pander to male chauvinism. As such, this poster was not the opposite of the poster for the preceding event – it came from precisely the same androcentric perspective, only an awful lot worse.

    I have known Azeezat for some time – we studied some of the same modules, and she translated some of my foreign-language sources for my dissertation – and I know she would not make a point like this lightly. I applaud her for the courage to speak out on this issue.

    It appears that this was rushed into print in a hurry, and for the Womens’ Officer to be unable to even see the design for the biggest event of the year for her portfolio of Union work is nothing short of astonishing.

  13. avatar

    Completely agree and support Azeezat on this one. Well written and reasoned responses.

    Agree the poster was poor on multiple levels (as a web/graphic designer) both men and women’s day posters were lazy on a design (and research) level.

    Can understand everyone involved here is still learning, things have to be rushed out sometimes, and I recognise the work that student reps/SUSU staff do. However this will further the view in some people that most effort made by student reps is expended during the campaigning to be elected (the American-style popularity contest) after which they are rather less visible.

    Also, thought the comment from O’Reilly was a bit petulant. You’ve every right to defend the campaign, but you are supposed to represent the student body mate, not shoot down any view that contrasts your own.

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