The other day I received this postcard in the mail:
On the back, it said “Hi Girls! You should look just as great coming home as you did going out, so don’t gamble on the weather….”. My first impression was that the postcard was playing into tired stereotypes of girls as primarily concerned with their appearances. But something about the image bothered me on a deeper level.
Within a few hours, a picture of the postcard (actually, the picture I posted above) appeared on the Oxford Feminist Network’s Facebook group, followed by several comments. These comments ranged from outraged to indifferent, with some members calling for actions against the taxi company while others claimed that people were overreacting.
Replying to comments on this thread helped me articulate what bothered me about the image: by aiming the postcard only at women (I guess men don’t get wet?) and featuring a photo of a lone woman clutching her dress to her bare shoulders, with rain on her face that could easily be mistaken for tears (not to mention the victim-blaming tone of the text), the ad features a particularly gendered and sexualized vulnerability. It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but it is definitely problematic.
Judging from the Facebook threads surrounding this postcard, it seems as if a lot of the people who didn’t find the ads offensive felt that way because they didn’t think that the woman looked like she’d been sexually assaulted (whatever that’s supposed to look like). Personally, when I first received the postcard in the mail, I only gave it a second glance because the picture looked like one you’d find on materials advertising a domestic violence or sexual abuse charity. It turns out we weren’t the first people to think that; an ad for a different taxi company featuring the same exact image with the same text had been criticized by a rape charity about a month earlier. While I can see the point that it’s hard to look at a piece of mainstream advertising and immediately think it depicts something that awful and insensitive, but that’s the problem with rape culture: it “exists because we don’t believe it does”.
Even if it’s true that nobody sat down and said, “you know what we should put in the ad? A girl who looks like she’s been raped! And we’ll make it seem like it’s her own fault for walking instead of using our taxi service!”, there is plenty about the ad that does play on women’s fears, both of sexual assault and of being seen as not “doing enough to prevent it”. Both of these are sadly very valid fears, especially in a world where 1 in 5 women in the US have experienced sexual assault, and girls as young as 11 are being blamed for their own sexual assaults.
Playing on people’s fears in advertising is nothing new; nobody wants their house to burn down when they don’t have insurance, and nobody wants their car to be stolen. The big difference between the examples is that a house burning down is an accident, and a car being stolen is a crime that everyone tends to agree is a crime with a bad-guy perpetrator and a clear, blameless victim. Even if you leave your car unlocked in a bad neighborhood, the worst that happens when it’s stolen is you feel like a huge idiot for a while, and then move on with your life. In filing a report about the crime, you’re not made to feel as if you inherently “deserved” to have your car stolen, or that you are somehow “ruined” by the crime.
So even though it’s (hopefully) true that nobody said “let’s scare girls with a rape ad!”, the choice of this picture, instead of a sad-looking couple huddling under a bus shelter, a group of guys in tuxedos getting splashed as a passing car drives through a puddle, or a group of girls limping home, high heels in hand, they did choose a picture that brings to mind a specifically feminine, sexual vulnerability.