Saturday, January 25, 2014

Something Stinks. And It May Be Huffington Post.

I originally posted this over on Huffington Post, as many of you may know. The backlash there was pretty spectacular, and while I'm trying to focus on the fact that more than 15,000 people "liked" it, a few of the comments (on HuffPo's own Facebook page) left me really wondering what people were reading and/or how they graduated high school and/or function in the real world. 

Before I post the original (including a line that HuffPo edited out without informing me, even though I thought it was hilarious and saw no need for its removal), allow me to share with you one other thing that happened, and then clear up a few misconceptions that people had in the comments section.

First of all, when anyone, including HuffPo itself, shared the article on Facebook, it had a different title. Someone over there took it upon his or herself to remove the word "vagina" and place it with "body." See for yourself:

I wrote to the "blog team" at HuffPo immediately (20 minutes after the thing posted) and complained that this didn't make any sense, given that the entire point of the piece was to illustrate that it's okay to say "vagina." So removing it just proved my point that some people have a real issue with the word, I guess. Should I be thanking them for that? I don't think so.

The first response from HuffPo, from someone named Jonathan, was this: "That's odd. I'll let the editors know. Perhaps it's fixable."

By the next morning I still hadn't heard anything. So I sent another email. And then another. Finally, someone named Jessica responded and completely missed the point:
Thanks for writing and for sharing your concerns! The title of your post remains unchanged -- the url and on-page title is the same. If people are sharing it with an alternate title, I'm afraid there is not much we can do. Our social media teams have really been behind your post and I hope it starts a larger discussion about how we talk about women and sex. Thanks again for writing.
Apparently she was under the impression that I was saying, "Hey, when people share this, they have the nerve to insert their own opinions about it. Do something!" So I wrote back and included the above screen capture, showing that HuffPo's own Facebook page had the word changed and that I am, in fact, smart enough to understand the difference between someone writing a comment and the actual embedded title of the post.

This was the next response:
Thank you, and I appreciate your concern. I know a major point of the post is the fear of saying vagina out loud. Only a tiny fraction of posts that run on the site are chosen to be shared on Facebook, and it's a very competitive selection process, part of which means giving our social media editors, like any other Facebook user, the right to tease the post the way that they want. I can't speak for them, but imagine 'body' gave the post more of a tease/enabled men to click on it, too -- then come to it and read your words, the ultimate goal. All of our editors are trained to get as many eyes on a post as possible, which is part of the reason, I hope, that people publish with us. As you can see from the longer pull quote in your sample below, vagina is used. Thanks!
So the new logic is now, "Well, yeah, the editors changed it, but that's only because the word 'body' would obviously get more clicks than the word 'vagina.'" I feel like I shouldn't even have to point out how absurd that is, but allow me to do it anyway -- that is absurd. And given that the entire piece is about the use of the word "vagina," there is no justification of removing that word from the title.

It would have been a lot better -- though still infuriating -- if someone over there had just admitted, "That word is a little scary for us to use in a headline. We better save it for just the 'pull quote.'" Honesty is apparently not highly regarded over there.

So despite the fact that I'll never be able to get that many readers on my own, I think I'm done publishing with Huffington Post. It's left a bad taste in my mouth and I just don't think I need to subject myself to it again.

Now for a few of those misconceptions the oh-so-educated commenters had:

1) I guess some people only read the title and decided I was trying to start a debate about whether or not women should wash their vaginas at all. I wasn't doing that. And I don't think any part of the post indicates that. If you just read the title, though, you may have thought, "Wait, she's saying vaginas don't stink? I am outraged!" But calm down. I said no such thing. I will quote Sarah Silverman here, who many people somehow thought I ripped off, even though, once again, my piece was not about whether or not you should wash your vagina: "Just use whatever you wash your asshole with. Surely that's strong enough for your 'disgusting' vagina. And if there's still a rancidness, go to the doctor. Don't spray perfume on it. That's what a crazy person would do."

2) I am not a person who is terrified of the smell emanating from her own vagina and somehow acting out against the "feminine hygiene" industry in revolt.

3) I did not have a husband leave me because the stank from my vagina was too much for him to bear.

4) I do not work for Huffington Post. Nor do I get paid by them for any posts. I received all this stress for free. 

5) I'm sorry (not really) if you think I'm too "sensitive" or lacking a sense of humor for writing about the pervasiveness of sexism in advertising. It's out there. And I'm of the opinion that we need to point out sexism -- in advertising and everywhere else -- every single time it happens. Because if there's this constant "It's a joke; don't worry so much" mentality, then nothing ever changes. And I want it to change. It's the same reason I don't like gay stereotypes being used as punchlines. Things need to change. I recognize that this is "just a commercial," but it speaks to a larger problem. I'm sure someone told Rosa Parks, "It's just a bus seat." And I'm certain my detractors will jump all over me for that comparison, but the fact of the matter is that injustice is injustice. And a Summer's Eve commercial didn't cause the GOP's War on Women or the glass ceiling or income inequality, but it is a byproduct of that mindset. And I'm not just going to sit idly by while advertising executives -- or anyone -- continues to perpetuate the notion that my vagina somehow makes me an inferior (and smelly) human being, not worthy of the same rights as the penis next to me.

Edited to add #6:

6) I realize there are many important things going on in the world -- Syria, Ukraine, etc. -- but writing about one problem happening in the United States does not mean that I am ignoring every other. I got a lot of flak like "Meanwhile, in Syria," or "Can't you find anything more important to write about? You must have a lot of time on your hands." Setting aside the logic of people who took the time to read my piece then complaining about me having too much time on my hands, I don't know why there's some lack of understanding that every single article/column written in the world can't be about every problem in the world simultaneously. So, yeah, I wrote about a feminist issue. That doesn't mean I don't care about the plight of the people in Ukraine or the gun violence in America. I just didn't write about those on that day in that particular piece.

And with that, here's the original piece, including an Oxford comma removed by Huffington Post (guess they're not into that sort of thing) and the line that they removed for whatever reason. The word count on the HuffPo version and my version is still off by four words, even when I add in the missing piece, so I'm not sure what else they removed. Regardless, what you see below is what I submitted to them.

The other night I happened upon a commercial for a body wash made by Summer's Eve. One of those "formulated for a woman's pH" sort of things. And with it, Summer's Even is approaching -- and perhaps surpassing -- Axe levels of sexism. And that's saying something. 

In this commercial, a man is in the shower, cleansing his parts, when his wife points out that he's using her body wash. He is instantly horrified, and sets off on a quest to remind himself -- and, of course, all of us -- that he is, indeed a man. This includes doing things like towing a car with his teeth, building some sort of metal helmet (Viking? Roman? Not sure.) and then mowing the lawn with said helmet on his head.

The worst thing that could possibly happen in that man's world is to be accused of being a woman.  And so he must do everything in his manly power to prove otherwise. I suppose only to himself, because it's not as though he's performing these feats in front of any sort of world. It's just a man. A man and his pride. A man, his pride, and a warped misogynistic viewpoint that continues to be foisted upon the American public in seemingly every commercial on television.

While I won't dwell on it here, I will point out that men should share some of the offense as well. After all, Summer's Eve wants us to think that dudes are so dumb that they could believe using soap in the shower might take away their penises, testicles,, and Y chromosome. And that somehow playing the drums or belly flopping into a pool will help him regain that lost "masculinity."

But let's get back to the ladies, because Summer's Eve certainly didn't think of us. I don't know if they remember that women are actually the target audience here. It seems like they must not understand that at all, given that their entire mission statement is to sell products aimed to make all your lady parts less icky.

Instead, I'd like to focus on the fact that the company that sells feminine hygiene products is incapable saying the word "vagina" on television. I don't think the commercial should have made it out of a pitch meeting in the first place, due to its incredibly sexist nature. But since some illustrious ad exec thought, evidently, that it was the greatest thing since the 1984 Apple commercial, allow me to at least ask why the hell the slogan for this company has to be "Hail to the V," as opposed to actually using the proper term.

Now, maybe that's the company itself; maybe it's that the networks won't allow it. Either way, some people have some really warped priorities. Not to mention that it's confusing. If I saw it in print, I would read it as "Hail to the Five."

I don't know about you, but I'm not afraid of my vagina (or vulva, which is the external genitalia that I assume this body wash is actually meant to cleanse). It's a body part, just like an elbow or a nose. But somewhere along the line, someone decided that women ought to be ashamed of their bodies. Tampons must be manufactured to be as discreet as possible, since no one can know you have to deal with such a horrifying thing. And products that likely do more harm than good, such as douches, are pushed as necessary items because your body's natural chemistry is just too much for men to handle.

Meanwhile, we are constantly subjected to the billion-dollar industry that ensures their dicks stay hard well into old age. "Erectile dysfunction" is not on the list of words/phrases deemed unfit for television.

If you look at it from an objective point of view, you can't possibly see that it would be a problem if the ad said "Hail to the vagina" at the end, right? I'm a firm believer in the idea that we give words their power. Cursing doesn't really offend me, because sometimes that's just how people need to express themselves. But "vagina" is not a curse word. It's a body part. If Summer's Eve wanted to call the body wash "Pussy Perfume," I for one would commend them for their alliteration. But I would also understand why some network advertising departments might not want to put that on air. Though I would probably disagree with that censorship, it would make some sort of sense. Omitting "vagina" from a commercial about vaginas is completely senseless.

I hate to do the whole "this is okay, but that's not?" comparison here, but this situation is just begging for it. Countless violent commercials for video games and movies are acceptable TV fare, but using the anatomically correct term for a female reproductive part is not?

Scantily clad ladies selling everything from beer to cheeseburgers is okay, but the thing that virtually all of us came out (or were going to, if we weren't removed via C-section) on our way into this world (and that 50% percent of us possess) is taboo?

Cartoon creatures flipping up a human toenail is all just fine and dandy dinnertime viewing fare, but the very mention of the word "vagina" sends folks across the nation Googling the phone number to the FCC?

This can't be the way the world really works. The real problem is that even Summer's Eve -- a company that makes products specifically for women -- doesn't believe that women are worthy of being hailed in any way. Unless it's to bring their men another beer from the kitchen. You're not putting women on a pedestal if the best you can do in a commercial is reinforce the concept that there is nothing worse than having a "V" in the first place, and that if you do have one, it's probably too dirty for any men to love anyway. Unless you use Summer's Eve, of course.

So perhaps what I've been missing all along is that the "V" in this ad campaign doesn't really stand for "vagina." It seems the better slogan for Summer's Eve might be "Hail to the Vacuous."


  1. Hi. I've just read your stuff for the first time. You are brilliant, thank you. I'm an American living in post-socialist Central Europe. Sexism in this region is so pervasive and deeply embedded that it's enough to make a 1950s American housewife roll her eyes. Seriously - if you don't wear thong underwear (and low-cut pants so that when you bend over the thong sticks way out) and walk around in 6-inch heels here, people think you're unattractive and neglecting yourself as a woman. Or worse, they think you're American. Imagine an entire country where all the women under 40 dress like high school girls from suburban New Jersey. There are only a handful of women in this country willing to admit in public that they are feminists, the rest of them think it's a dirty word. This is because communism created a system where women were expected to do as much work outside the home as men, while still doing all the work inside the home and being treated like second-class citizens. The regime called this "emancipation". This is what the definition of "feminism" is here. I've got about 35 beginnings of blog-ish pieces in my computer files about my life here. I can only hope and aspire to write as powerfully as you do some day. JL

    1. Thanks so much. Sounds like you have a lot to write. You should go for it.

  2. I get the article and the tone. I think that Summer's Eve was trying to make women laugh with the commercial, in a tongue-and-cheek way pointing out that men are more shallow than women.

    But that's not why I wanted to comment. You said "And products that likely do more harm than good, such as douches, are pushed as necessary items because your body's natural chemistry is just too much for men to handle." I'm just curious why it's too much for men to handle? Is there not a single lesbian on the planet who uses Summer's Eve or some other vaginal deodorant? When a woman goes on a first date and chooses to use Summer's Eve, is she doing so because of societal pressures from men about the way a vagina should smell? Or is she doing it because people generally don't like stuff that stinks? You purposely chose to use the word 'men' there, so I'm just asking why.

    On a side note, if my penis smelled bad I would try to change that - just out of consideration for my partner. If the only option available to me to do this was bad for my health, I'd try to find other options that weren't bad for my health. I'd continue to work on it, but that's just the person I am. I don't think society wants me to have a pleasant smelling penis because women (or men) can't handle my natural state - I think most people like pleasant smelling things.

    And some people love a smelly pussy.

    1. Well, since I am a lesbian, I feel like I can speak from that perspective. I still grew up in a male-dominated society, so regardless of my sexual orientation today, I have still been affected by the perception of women in that society. I do not consciously think, "What I'm doing today will please/displease a man." But my subconscious perception of myself and my role in the world has absolutely been influenced -- shaped -- by the patriarchy. That's why I chose the word "men."

      I'm sure some lesbians use Summer's Eve. My point about SE in the sentence you quoted is that douches are bad for women's health. The post spoke about a commercial for body wash. That is not inherently bad for health, but I certainly dispute the need for a gender-specific body wash.

      But my overall point was that the commercial about vaginas should be able to use the word.

      And I'm sure some people do love a smelly pussy. Good for them. I made no statements about how a vagina does (or should) smell.