Sunday, August 20, 2006

HSBC : a study in dangerous stereotyping

seen the HSBC ad that's on TV now? a breath-takingly bad one. i was chatting with someone recently about how pervasive media stereotyping is,and why it IS a big deal, and this seems to me a prime example of the same.

at surface level, the HSBC ad is totally banal.

the opening scene is of a stereotypical geek (yes, down to the glasses) peering through a telescope at planets. i guess he is generally supposed to make us draw the brilliant conclusions that :

1. he has no social life and therefore presumably no social skills
2. he is weak - he's sniffling and has poor eyesight, and therefore an object of contempt
3. he is unattractive for the above reasons and incapable of being liked or socially accepted.

our geek makes way for the Cool Dude by lamely retiring to the loo. enter cool dude. he checks his watch, swivels the telescope around to watch his idea of a heavenly body - the next door Babe (who, surprise surprise, happens to be stripping). hmmm. the last time i checked, a guy's spying on a woman like that and noting her movements and daily schedule was called "Stalking". or "Obsessive psychologically unbalanced behaviour".

i wonder if HSBC really meant to say "HSBC : the friendly neighbourhood bank for voyeurs". i wonder if they really meant to create a stereotype for stalkers to normalise them and make their actions seem commonplace and acceptable. i shall magnanimously doubt it, and just think them absolute blankety-blanks.

the more you dig below surface level, the more the ad stinks.

for one thing, it strongly upholds the supremacy of the male gaze. male gaze is a feature of patriarchy wherein the male has the right to stare at and objectify the female. the male has the right to intrusively behold the female, to mentally unclothe her and to "assess" her as merely the sum of physical features, and to subject her to evaluation according to stereotyped notions of beauty and attractiveness. the female, as the subject of the gaze, anxiously tries to come through the evaluation as best as she can, and is under pressure to try and make herself as attractive as possible since her evaluator is more executioner than judge in spirit.

and HSBC upholds this? interesting. not only that, but it announces its eagerness to serve such "different" people better. so what if the person being pampered is a stalker or a voyeur. so what if the service is at the cost of a woman being harassed and stalked.

even if i were a man watching the ad, i would still feel furious. the ad comprehensively insults male sexuality. it reduces the entire complex range of sexual reactions, stimuli, sensations and emotions to one trigger - the sight of some random female body. at which cue, men are supposed to mechanically have an erection, and there ends the sexual experience. what are they are supposed to be, zombies with a penile knee-jerk reaction?

again, one wonders if HSBC really meant to imply these attitudes. what were they thinking?

(pictures of the storyboard from aqencyfaqs)

brownskinspeak, feminist issues

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

human nature, sex and science

"Survival of the fittest" is often just an instance of invoking science to sanction hooliganism. How often have we heard blind violence and brute force being accepted in its name? Violence in sex is benevolently patted on the head and glamourised as an expression of virility. When we do shake our heads reprovingly, we sigh over how it's all "human nature".

Obviously, science hasn't figured us out completely, and we're not everything science cranks us out to be. If we were, we should also still be smelling the backsides of our prospective mates before mating - you know, the "Animal Instinct" that we assume out of the blue for sex alone. (of course, at other times we're more Evolved.)

Human nature is a funny thing. Especially when sex comes up, much has been casually attributed to it, from the vilest vices to the most inexplicable quirks. However, a good deal of our perceptions are basically ideas foisted on us by science (and a highly politicised one at that). Science can be as much a political tool as any movie or book. In fact, it's more manipulative and insidious because of its unquestioned neutrality.

So I'm going back to where it all started - evolution. In mainstream science, one aspect has hogged all the limelight: Darwin's survival of the fittest. It is a postulate which has out-shouted all other ideas (even others of Darwin’s!) . While the assumption certainly has its merits, obviously it isn't everything. (If nothing else, it sadly fails to explain the number of people in existence today, who still doggedly drink Coke and eat Cadburys!)

The importance of the theory of mate selection emerges. What drives the members of the species to be attracted to each other and to want to mate? A rather startling fact is that although Darwin himself suggested that this was a major determinant of evolutionary trends, it was carefully filtered out of mainstream evolutionary theory by generations of scientists.

Victorian prudery (assisted admirably by political agenda) helped maintain this silent censorship. At least where sex is concerned, scientists are quite remarkably like most of us general junta, preferring to handle it from an arm's distance with sterile gloves and throw it right to the back of the cupboard so they needn’t keep seeing it and feeling uncomfortable about not dealing with all its attendant issues.

But this is an old story of course - pretty much every radical scientific breakthrough has had to contend with religious and/or political concerns, and usually, science loses in the first round.

Anyway, popular evolutionary theory cannot explain the existence of so many of the features that humans are unique for – like the ability to evolve ideologies and religion, music and art, employ humour and wit, create ornate expressive languages – why, even to gossip! Especially since these “frivolous” adaptations of humans are not seen as having any survival value (because a persons irreverence, immorality or sombreness do not in any way impede his ability to survive, right?), why do they exist?

Why have we developed these qualities? Wouldn’t evolution have filtered ‘em off as a waste of time to instead encourage a more “survival” based set of adaptations? You know - apply the brain to Worthier Tasks than painting or punning. "Survival of the fittest" has no answer to that one.

Adaptations that have large survival benefits evolve many times in different lineages – for example, through convergent evolution. But there is no sign of this happening in human-style art, language, moral idealism, humour etc. The absence of even adaptive radiation rumbles the old theories some more.

Also, science is often marked by politicised reductionism. While reductionism is important and helps us filter elements so that we may form a grid of knowledge from which to understand the world, it also tends to prune huge chunks of reality and trash them as irrelevant. Hence evolutionary theory has maintained that sole driving force, more or less, is survival. The survival of the fittest. And by doing so, it has also reduced the scope of psychological evolution to merely the biological.

The chasm between theory and reality is not seen only in humans, but also in other species. Shouldn't peacocks have been wiped out or developed tails like pea hens? But there they are, flamboyant mockeries of our popular theories! If not for promoting sexual choice, what have these tails survived for?

Enter the more realistic theory of sexual selection. (predictably, it isnt accepted as mainstream science!) Sexual selection is a highly unpredictable, diversifying and complex process.

Why I like it, is because it goes beyond mere survival value, giving importance to individual qualities and traits. wit, humour, ideology and so on, while not directly contributing to survival, may have an indirect impact on it because these qualities make the person more desirable as a mate to another member of the species. makes sense doesn’t it, seeing how many of us are not supermodels, but are still in great relationships and attractive to so many people?

Another reason this theory’s interesting is because it busts that argument of “basic instinct” for unbridled sexual behaviour - many people who cheat or employ coercion in a sexual relationship simply blame their "instinct" for their sexual incontinence. Well, they’ll have to think again! integrity, loyalty and other such qualities have been carefully evolved because they too are attractions and critical in mate selection. So they're just as natural “basic” instincts.

This theory also admits the fact that (where humans are concerned) the female sex drive is not only on par with male sex drive, but often stronger. I'm yet to hear of a native remedy in any culture to boost a woman's sexual desire. they're mostly just to boost only the man's sex drive. (in other words, read: sometimes men need the additional help to keep up with the woman's naturally stronger sexual drive.)

Additionally, it also describes how clitoral responses have shaped evolution, a refreshing perspective, considering our phallic culture and the myth of penile power. In virtually every species, the females of the species choose while the males strive to be chosen. The males acquire whatever traits the females deem attractive. So when we speak of evolution of traits – its driven primarily by the females.

When we look at the things that make human life so delightful – art, music, literature, wit, humour - we have to thank womenkind for having the good taste to make them an evolutionary priority.

feminist issues


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