Why I don’t Like It

It is an obvious fact that two kinds of people will read this: men, and women. It is less obvious that women will know already what the ongoing “I like it on the…” Facebook meme was about, while many men will not. The trend, of women posting where they “like it”, is about handbags. It is a follow on to January’s similar meme of posting (bra) colours. Both were set up as ‘girls only’ games and both are apparently (and  bizarrely) awareness campaigns. The cause, Breast Cancer Awareness month, is a good one. The campaign, however, is poor.

On the one hand I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about this. After all, many women are enjoying themselves, the message seems to be spreading and men are hardly complaining about all the sexy innuendos flying around Facebook. But that is also the problem. It isn’t a big problem, like Darfur or AIDS or breast cancer itself, but it isn’t trivial either because what is wrong with this campaign is part of why activism of this sort has limited impact.

The campaign succeeds if “the boys” are completely confused by the spontaneous but exciting bout of kinky statuses.

In a general sense, I think it would be a good idea if more people were aware about breast cancer. But as a campaign, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Like all distributed campaigns the message often gets lost, a la broken telephone. It baffles me that this should happen in an age where you can just hit “forward” but still, many women seemed to be in on the ‘trick men’ part of the bra colour meme, but not the breast cancer. Unsurprisingly, many women are more interested in having a bit of fun than spreading a message. So before we even discuss the side-effects of this campaign I think it’s worth pointing out that it isn’t particularly effective at spreading awareness. In fact, I am not sure I should be calling it a ‘campaign’; the term seems to imply coordination, where this feels much more like an organic meme.

Then there are a range of feminist issues. It was my (female) roommate who pointed this out to me when she vented about it over breakfast.

First, a minor quibble: the campaign presumes that women should band together about a stereotypical feature of popular femininity: the handbag. I find this issue a little hard to access, so I won’t dwell on it too much. The issue is clearly that this “handbag femininity” is of a particularly restrictive type – part of a Barbie-doll, hetero, middle-class conception of womanhood.  This isn’t  too major an issue on its own – campaigns have target markets after all, and it occurs to me that many women do feel like handbags (and bras) are an important part of their aesthetic identity. But considering the argument I’ll make below about excluding men, this question shouldn’t be overlooked.

Far more importantly, the campaign is twisted because it is entirely centred on men. That may sound surprising, because superficially men are not involved at all. But the aim is to baffle and to titillate. The campaign succeeds if “the boys” are completely confused by the spontaneous but exciting bout of kinky statuses.

A corollary to this is that women are being asked to band together against men. This isn’t just a case of raising awareness by exclusion – a wonderfully ironic oxymoron –  but also a cheap appeal to a “battle of the sexes” view of the world. Instead of uniting against breast cancer, the idea is to unite women against men in the context of breast cancer awareness. It is similar to many other campaigns which use fun group activities seemingly unrelated to the cause being promoted – cycling for heart disease, fun internet games on campaign sites etc. I can see the appeal of these methods versus the dreaded chain-mail appeal, or the staid charity drive. But the important difference about this campaign is that it goes beyond identifying a target audience to arbitrarily excluding a potentially allied group.

This seems like a backwards way of raising awareness about an issue that affects so many women and specifically attacks one of the paradigm signs of femininity: breasts. The focus is wrong, and the tone is at odds with the real issues. Books about recovering breast cancer sufferers often highlight the difficulty surrounding regaining and redefining one’s femininity in the face of the loss of one or both breasts. In this context it is particularly odd to be promulgating a view of femininity which prioritises men (and their sexual arousal), and focuses explicitly on superficial accessories as a proxy for femininity.

We also shouldn’t underestimate the response it invites from men. In January men did one of two things. They got annoyed and dismissive, or they “hit back” with counter-posts about the colour of their underwear. At the moment my news feed has a growing number of sarcastic and crude responses from men, either as comments on women’s statuses or as their own. Clearly this behaviour is also pathological – it betrays a deep insecurity and hypersensitivity to “reverse sexism”. But that’s not the point. The point is that this kind of campaign is specifically tuned to inciting those responses. So these are the options: men are titillated, or goaded, or dismissive.

I grant that breast cancer is largely a women’s issue (though men get it too) and that this might justify some collateral damage on the other side of the gender divide. But considering the limited efficacy of memes-as-campaigns, the shaky ideological issues and the potential to thoroughly turn men off the issue, I have to say I don’t like it one bit.

  • Laurence Caromba

    The problem I have with this, stated very succinctly on the StuffWhitePeopleLike.com page you linked to, is the idea that promoting “awareness” has become seen as a laudable goal in and of itself, as though people were unaware of of breast cancer and needed to be reminded that it exists. Every time I see people shaving their heads of cancer awareness, wearing a ribbon for HIV awareness, growing a moustache for Movember, etc. I am struck by the thought that none of this makes any material difference to the people who are suffering from these diseases.

    If you want to actually do something, I can’t help but feel that you’d be better off donating some money to scientific research, or donating money or time to an NGO that is helping to alleviate the social costs of these diseases. Posting a status update on Facebook, while done with the best of intentions, is nevertheless an example of cheap slacktivism that allows people to feel good about something without incurring any costs and without making any real difference.

  • I have to agree with you Laurence – spreading the word just for the sake of it is pointless. But I must disagree about cycling for heart disease and shave-a-thon campaigns, because they actually raise money for the cause that they purport to be supporting. According to http://www.shavathon.org.za, the 2009 campaign raised R6 million. The “I like it” campaign, or should I say “campaign”, is just an excuse for girls to have a bit of fun, while at the same time feeling that they have “done their part” for cancer.

    • Joe

      I agree – the reason I decided to write this is that I think it is worthwhile debunking the notion that this kind of activity is a good substitute for real activism. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this recently (it’s a typically over-long offering, and I disagree with a lot of it – but he’s right on this).

      So it is doubtful that this campaign does its job, it is doubtful the job is worth doing and it is likely harmful to mislead people into exchanging real effort for this kind of slacktivism. ’nuff said.

  • annabel

    The revolution will not be tweeted.

  • amy

    A while ago, my FB feed was flooded by my guy-friends talking about exotic locations like “Amsterdam, Belgium and New York”… are they trying to do the same thing? Maybe raise awareness for testicular cancer??? *shrugs*

    I get annoyed when people jump on the bandwagon just for the sake of being on an over-crowded bandwagon. I never joined the bra-colour or the handbag “awareness campaign” because I felt the link between the status update and the cause was too far removed, and participating would be similar to attention-whoring.