As I See It: I See England, I See France, I See Techie Underpants
September 8, 2014 Victor Rozek
Imagine an ad featuring a nerdy-looking guy lying on his unmade bed, typing on his laptop, wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts with stars and galaxies spinning on his butt. The announcer tells you that this line of underwear was inspired by Einstein and features a flexible waistband because “The universe is always expanding.” Wouldn’t you just want to run out and buy a pair?
What if the company then claimed it was fighting discrimination against nerds, and that the guy in the ad was actually the CEO of a Silicon Valley startup? Don’t know about you, but I’d be left scratching my head, feeling bad for his family.
Well, just when you think advertising cannot surpass its norm of stupidity and poor taste, along comes an underwear company called Dear Kate. It created an ad featuring a half-dozen women who purportedly have some gravitas in the tech community, posed in workplace settings, typing on their laptops, wearing industrial strength underwear that the company claims was inspired by (get this) mathematician Ada Lovelace, arguably the world’s first programmer.
When I think of great mathematicians I always think of underwear. How about you?
If the company’s reasoning wasn’t so tortured, and the premise so vacuous, the ad might be amusing. But sexism has been and continues to be a genuine issue, and it’s hard to see how this ad will inspire male decision-makers to take women more seriously. You just know that some woman interviewing for a management position is going to be asked: “You wearing your Ada Lovelace panties, honey?”
It’s difficult to criticize an ad that claims to combat sexism without sounding sexist. Let’s just say that what it lacks in esthetics, it makes up for in courage. But a lack of courage is not the root of sexism. Stupidity is the root of sexism and it will not be remedied by the further trivialization of women. Perhaps the next campaign can feature Gloria Steinem serving drinks in a Hooters T-shirt.
In the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that I, too, occasionally work in my skivvies. But I work from home, and I don’t take selfies to post on the Internet. Nor do I make the absurd claim that my underwear was inspired by William Faulkner.
But Dear Kate would like to have women believe it’s not just selling bits of frilly material that ladies (and, to be fair, certain gentlemen) wear under their clothing, but “High performance underwear for high performing women.” The implication being that high performance is best achieved by reducing the brilliant and pioneering Ada Lovelace to something you wear on your butt.
The company’s motivation is clear: sell underwear to women who identify themselves as, or aspire to, being, “high performing.” The motivation of the women posing in the ad is more difficult to extrapolate. Money is the most obvious. They were no doubt handsomely paid for baring their, ah, coding skills. Ostensibly, they also wanted to make a statement. But just what that statement might be isn’t clear.
Here are several guesses:
Or, as Dear Kate would have us believe, “Women should be respected regardless of what they’re wearing.” Well, of course they should. But being respected isn’t the same as being taken seriously. Or treated as an equal. It’s the equivalent of saying: People who behave like idiots should be respected as much as people who don’t. There are two kinds of respect: An innate respect that all life forms are entitled to and a behavioral respect that must be earned. Dear Kate mistakes the former for the latter.
The problem is there is nothing in the ad to suggest that respect is the underlying message. If striking a blow against sexism in technology was the aim, then the ad makers should have been more fastidious in their choice of copy.
The ad features a group picture followed by individual photos of women, each offering a little tidbit of techie wisdom. Here’s a quote from Quiessence Phillips, creator of the Girltechie Campaign: “It is important to have more women in technology because women want to solve different problems–the kind that are life changing.” Phillips apparently fails to see the sexism embedded in her own language. Her not-too-subtle implication is that men don’t work on life-changing problems. Oh, really? I’ll bet Steve Jobs would have been surprised to learn he hadn’t changed anyone’s life.
Controversy is a cheap way to generate publicity, and publicity is good for sales. Granted, when you sell underwear, your options are limited, but pretending there is a link between Ada Lovelace, underwear, and high performing women, does all women a disservice.
In the quest for equality, women have struggled, sacrificed, and suffered. They took on a task equivalent to slowing down and reversing the direction of an oil tanker with a canoe. And when the undertaking seemed impossible, they rowed harder. They have been marginalized, humiliated, ridiculed, arrested, and beaten. And still they endured. Among their numbers are serious thinkers and writers who have enlightened and liberated generations of women, as well as men. From suffrage and property rights, to reproductive control and economic equality, progress came slowly and often at great cost. Day after day they endured the ignorance and insecurities of males who choose subjugation over inclusion. Nonetheless, they succeeded in changing minds and opening hearts, and in the process have achieved positions of leadership and stature. Women run companies and governments, rocket into space, and are awarded the Nobel Prize.
These are the giants on whose shoulders the six women in the Dear Kate ad stand. It’s a pity they chose to stand in their underwear.