Sony Pulls Controversial 'Sexist' PS Vita Ad
Modern online culture is really, really good at one thing: Moral outrage.
Folks on the left and folks on the right do this, sometimes over the same issues without realizing it, and often in equal measure. There's always going to be some celebrity or some company or some politician who did or said something or who appeared a certain way that's going to make people Very Angry or feel Morally Superior.
Today that outrage is once again on display, as Sony pulls an admittedly pretty lame ad from their European YouTube channel for the handheld PlayStation Vita console.
In the ad, a 'sexy' female doctor makes some strong sexual innuendo that appears to be about masturbation but later turns out to be playing the Vita. What a twist!
It's not particularly funny or effective, but it's hard to get too worked up over the spot being 'sexist' or horribly offensive, despite the thin-skinned internet deeming it so.
Business Insider calls the ad 'blatantly sexist' while Jezebel changes things up a bit with 'stupidly sexist' and HuffPo gets all creative and tosses in a 'blushingly sexist' for good measure. Ouch.
BoingBoing is more on target by calling it cringe-worthy. But I can't tell if all this upset is merely the product of an online culture quick to send social distress signaling out into the void, or the sad result of a culture that's afraid and uncomfortable with all things sexual. Both, perhaps? The Verge's Kwame Opam writes that 'even if the doctor merrily joins in on the fun (gaming, that is), it's after the fact - she's a sexy lady first and a gamer second, never fully eroding what the target always is. Now, there's nothing wrong with being sexy, but that sexiness is in service of a male audience that's fixed and behaves in a certain way.'
But this cuts right to the problem with the 'male gaze' critique leveled at anything perceived as purposefully sexist and targeted at the 'straight male' or 'straight male teenage' demographic. We saw a similar critique leveled at Bayonetta when Bayonetta 2 was released, a subject ably dissected by Maddy Myers at the time.
Men and teenage boys are not the only people who enjoy sex, or who 'gaze' at sexy women for that matter. Nor does a bit of attempted sexiness set back attempts at making video games more inclusive.
Again, sex is used to sell everything under the sun...because sex sells.
Maybe this ad was targeted at a certain demographic-most ads are-but that doesn't mean gamers are any more sexist than people who buy cars or Levi's or shampoo or beer. Sex is used to sell each of these things, and why shouldn't it be?
There are a lot of things to be said about the Sony spot. It isn't funny. It isn't particularly sexy. It's not even that original. But also: It's not inherently sexist either. We should be careful calling anything sexual sexist.
Take this fantastic Old Spice ad, for example. Most everyone's seen it by now. It features an attractive, muscled guy (below) wearing only a towel instructing women to look at their man and then back at the guy, and so forth. Unfortunately for us men, we aren't this guy. But Old Spice can help!
The spot is using sex and humor to sell Old Spice, the same two things the Sony ad is using. But I don't recall a hue and cry raised over the Old Spice ad. It was quite universally praised, and it deserved every bit of that praise. Of course, the Old Spice ad is great and the Sony ad is terrible, but either way it strikes me as odd to call one sexist while giving the other a free pass.
There are real institutional barriers to women in our society, in both private and public sectors, in tech and every other industry.
There are actual misogynists out there harassing women in real life. I've encountered these things-and I've known people who have been sexually harassed at work or school.
Sexism is as real as racism and neither is dead and probably neither ever will be. These very real problems won't be solved or improved by effectively neutering the words 'sexism' and 'misogyny.' What will solve them is up for debate, but outrage culture is a pretty poor place to begin. Indeed, humor is one way we cope and process these aspects of our society. Hopefully, reasonable people can have a reasonable conversation, since conversation is the best way to make progress.
But as columnist Meghan Daum notes on the subject of outrage culture, 'when so many people are so busy looking for ways to be offended, reasonable questions aren't only pointless, they are threatening. The very act of questioning someone's outrage is often taken as act of aggression, one that just leads to further outrage.'
I'm really not outraged by all of this, mind you. But I'm probably contributing to the internet's growing problem with Annoyance Culture. Never let it be said that I'm not at least a little self-aware.
Ultimately, this unremarkable ad would never have gotten much attention, but thanks to all attention it'll be plenty viral. All press is good press.