Jean Kilbourne is a feminist author and speaker at college campuses, particularly on the issue of women in advertising. In August 2009 I reacted to a video of one of Kilbourne’s lectures with a critical response, and although it’s been one of my widest-read articles (presumably because students are researching responses to her work), the comments section under it on this site has thus far comprised mostly of calling me names:

“youre a moron”

“you are an idiot.”

“you are most certainly quite ignorant”

“You make me sick.”

“you’re just a stupid fool”

…etcetera. This is to be expected; people are being taught at a young age that everything is sexist, and that any man who disagrees is proof of the fact and must merely be fighting for the preservation of patriarchy.

Some, though, think for themselves. The latter comment, for example, was retracted by someone who changed their minds about me after reading the piece (what a novel concept!):

“I take that last comment back. I read it again, it turns out that you are actually smart and I do understand some of your viewpoints. Sorry about other comment, not exactly a good day for me.”

I appreciated the retraction, because they’re rare. But these kneejerk reactions are unfortunately typical, and had a strong showing during a recent debate I inspired about wolf-whistling. Modern, progressive people need sometimes circumvent their programming to engage with what I’m really saying, rather than what they’re reading into what I’m saying. This is because, unfortunately, there are sexist people to fight, and the tendency to pigeonhole me as one of them is sometimes irresistible to those who are used to fighting them. People often belong to feminism or to chauvinism, and it’s tempting to assume that someone who is critical of the first must belonging to the second. This is the burden of being a freethinker.

I received a great email this morning on the Kilbourne piece, from B Vance, a 20 year old female college student in Cheney, Washington, who writes:

“Coming to the internet, and using a mix of databases through my college, to try to find data/research to use against Ms. Kilbourne has been quite the hassle. In fact, the only arguments directly against her that I’ve encountered, albeit accidentally, are through [your] article (which I realize is over a year old, though relevant) and a couple of 1-star book reviews on Amazon.com. They may lack stats and research but, through pure reasoning, there are valid points. I have to question whether or not it is politically incorrect in this day and age to question a feminist viewpoint.”

It isn’t, despite the fact that there are multiple, quite disparate perspectives within feminism. But, as her comment implies, why need any kind of correctness involve itself in rational thought? Thinking people can be so frightened of sounding like those they despise that they cease thinking critically. That’s a hell of a price to pay for correct perception; too high a price for me. The sum of all that uncritical head-nodding is that people like Kilbourne are allowed to persuade thousands of impressionable college minds with an unfailingly politically correct, yet extremely unsound thesis which, upon scrutiny, fails at the most basic rational level.

Vance noticed this too.

“It seems her methods are not contested and are accepted as truth. … Specifically, I’m bothered by her use of a Smirnoff Vodka ad showing a flock of sheep with a wolf hidden amongst them, only revealed by the vodka bottle. Her two cents on this: “Sometimes there seems to be no question but that a man should force a woman to have sex… A vodka ad pictures a wolf hiding in a flock of sheep, a hideous grin on its face. We all know what wolves do to sheep.” Yes, wolves maul sheep but when I see a bottle of alcohol revealing something to be what it’s not, ‘rapist’ doesn’t come to mind so much as ‘alcohol reveals our true selves’. What that ‘self’ is might be ugly but not necessarily a rapist.”

It’s unsubstantiated nonsense. Vance is right to ask why Kilbourne is reading sexuality into the ad when it’s just as easy to say that the message of the ad is that Smirnoff sets you apart from the crowd (‘Don’t be just another sheep’), or that you see things differently when you drink it, or that you become unique (perhaps the wolf is the object of attraction, only becoming so when seen through Smirnoff eyes).

Or, maybe Kilbourne is right to suggest that the ad is about sexual opportunity, and the suggestion that Smirnoff makes the drinker more bold than the rest of the pack. But jumping straight to rape is typical of Kilbourne’s exercise in sloppy conjecture, making sense only if her a priori assumptions are valid: that everything is sexist… therefore these ads must be too… so you must read them like this. (In any case, why the assumption that the ad is intended solely for males who want sex with females; don’t females ever want sex too? And if men do see the ad and come away with the rather odd conclusion that Smirnoff will gain them a sexual partner, is that bad? Why? Are sexual advances inherently sexist now too? So many assumptions, so little time.)

When I searched the term “smirnoff ad wolf sheep” on Google, I found this page from a conspiracy theorist, making the deadly serious point that the Illuminati – who, as we all know, secretly control the United States of America – are speaking to us through Smirnoff ads. Kilbourne’s interpretation is more grounded than that, but not much. In my original critique I compared her to a conspiracy theorist, “…the kind who imagines all sorts of messages coming from a Borg-like collective…” and I think in certain respects it rings true. Vance concludes:

“Anyway, I wanted to thank you for speaking out about this topic. I’m always astounded how often something of this nature goes into print and, yet, its content isn’t questioned or argued because of the topic. To be called ‘stupid’ or ‘apathetic’ or ‘just being a man’ because you offer an alternate look at this topic is ridiculous. Those that insist on taking the author’s view as the only view are the ones who need to learn a thing or two about analyzing text or a lecture.”

Anyone who disagrees with me on this subject can and should do so, vocally, and harshly if necessary; there’s a large and frank conversation to be had about women in advertising and there aer sensible views beyond my own to be found. Let’s have it. But to imagine for a second that the people calling me a moron because I’m male are fighting sexism… is foolish; in fact it’s just the kind of sexism Kilbourne presumably wants to eradicate (it’s also, needless to say, as irrational as Kilbourne’s lecture since it’s merely ad hominem and not grounded in criticism of the argument being presented).

Thanks to B Vance for the email. May the conversation continue.