Greasy debates

On the difficulties of fruitful conversations about feminism

Conscientious objectors in Britain, 1939–1945

The other day I was having a drink with friends. At a certain point during our lighthearted conversation, I started to sense that The Topic was approaching, lurking unavoidably behind an innocent-looking comment or two: gender issues, sex-based discrimination, feminism.

The more I read and reflect (and worry) about those issues, the more reluctant I grow to engage with these topics in casual settings. I have three reasons for that.

The first motive is that my views about feminism and gender issues are almost always in the minority when the topic arises spontaneously among friends, at an event, on social media, or at work. Although there is a growing online community of sensible egalitarians who criticise some of the tenets of mainstream feminism, I think I can count on the fingers of one hand all the relatives, friends and personal acquaintances of mine who agree with me on this, at least approximately. My guides are people like Warren Farrell, Christina Hoff Sommers or Camille Paglia; and my allies, a loose company of similarly-minded followers, bloggers, journalists and intellectuals, from Australia to Canada — whom I have never met. Being a contrarian can be fun online. But it is rather frustrating and exhausting when one is completely outnumbered, and when volume trumps reason.

My second reason to avoid the topic in most situations is that gender issues are particularly complex. Methodology, accuracy and nuances matter a lot. Arguments have to be carefully constructed, and I strongly believe they should be supported by scientific literature and robust studies (as opposed to anecdotes and personal feelings). Because of that, I almost feel less uncomfortable attempting to discuss in an informal way climate change or tax policy — grave as these topics certainly are — than debating about the gender pay gap. When an impromptu debate is going to last for a few hasty minutes only, I can’t even begin to justify why, in my opinion, calling domestic violence against women “terrorism” is not only inaccurate and misleading, but even counter-productive to the feminist cause.

Thirdly, these are polarising issues that many take at heart (including me, admittedly), and I don’t want to alienate friends, acquaintances or coworkers. I am not a bigot nor a sexist, but there is a high risk that I may be perceived as one by another participant in the discussion, just because I question some of the dogmas of third-wave feminism. (Unfortunately, having taken the time repeatedly to explain one’s ideas [in Spanish] is no insurance against the witch hunt.) I must admit that this bias is understandable; it’s human nature. I know that if I heard a friend say: “sure, child labour is a very bad idea — but […]”, that little conjunction there would immediately trigger a state of alert in me, and I would listen to the rest of his argument with way too much caution. If I did not listen carefully enough to his entire argument, or if the discussion came to an end abruptly for whatever reason, the exchange could even leave me with a subtle feeling of uneasiness or mistrust towards my friend. The most honest and compassionate of thinkers will piss off someone, sometime, with a careless statement, an oversimplification, a crude generalisation, or an unfortunate example. I value truth, reason and science. But I value my friends and colleagues even more. Thus, I often deflect the debate.

Feminism workshop (CC Astrid Carlsen)

Case in point: the other night.

We were five people seated around a table at a quiet bar, chatting and having some drinks. My companions happened to be all female: three women I know well, and a friend of one of them, whom I met on the spot that night.

I think it was the recent controversy about “Lady Doritos” that started the debate. By some brief comments and a few concerned nods, I suddenly got the impression that the four people around me agreed that the infamous product was in essence an outrageous display of sexism. (I suspect that they would also say that it is either consequence of a misogynistic society, or yet another bit contributing to making society more misogynistic; and perhaps they would even support legislation to ban products like that one. But of that I can’t be sure, because this was an impromptu debate and, obviously, there was no time for nuances…)

Then, I said that I did not think “Doritos for women” were sexist at all.

I should have stayed quiet.

What follows are my thoughts about this particular affair (which, needless to say, I did not get the chance to lay out properly the other night). Some of these simple arguments are applicable also to other recent “controversies” in which some feminists were way too eager to cry wolf.

Counseling about the draft (CC Laura Jones)

One. Companies (especially huge multinationals like PepsiCo, owner of Doritos) are blind to almost everything but money. They care about PR and the image they project so long as those have an impact on their bottom line. That has been called the logic of capitalism. Business decisions are ultimately aimed at gaining consumers or clients. A company, as a whole, does not care much, if at all, about ethical and political issues per se. Therefore, it’s healthy to be sceptical by default when companies appear to support certain ideas, be it environmentalism, Christian values, anti-ageism, gay rights, or anything else.

One example: on the surface, a corporation may support a certain presidential candidate out of sincere concerns about the well-being of the nation. In reality, the most detached of cost-benefit analyses pointed the executive board in the direction that has the bigger chance of maximising profits in the long run.

Two. Companies (especially huge multinationals like PepsiCo) excel at being perceived as good and responsible, and at sidestepping controversial issues. (They are definitely much better at that than yours truly.) Of course you can recall several recent gaffes, but that is precisely because they are so rare that they became “scandals” and make the headlines. And they cost companies a fortune. Thus, whatever tiny leeway companies may have to indulge in pure politics, they surely don’t squander it on unpopular initiatives.

Feminism is definitely popular in 2018 in places like Spain and the US, and PepsiCo knows that.

Three. For the previous two reasons alone, it is extremely rare that big companies produce racist ads, send homophobic messages, or release sexist lines of products in liberal democracies. Certainly they never do it on purpose. Companies don’t have the luxury of taking political stances freely, like individuals do: you and I pick our friends, and politicians target certain segments of the electorate; but companies sell to everybody. When public opinion condemns companies for alleged unethical promotions, most likely it is because a sentence, an image or a joke was misread, exaggerated, taken out of context, or maliciously distorted by someone.

Four. Even if there was a trace of sexism in something like “Lady Doritos”, I think it is important to acknowledge that the same unflinching rules of consumerism that made the product possible in the first place give us the tools to fight it, and even to destroy it. In North America and in Europe, a company making highly polluting products, offering racist services, or running adverts that risk offending even a small fraction of consumers, would be committing corporate suicide. That is why I maintain that this is entirely outside the realm of the law and the State. Occasional occurrences of sexism in the marketplace are one order of magnitude less dangerous than institutional sexism or sexism backed by legislation (and perhaps even less dangerous than positive discrimination enforced by the law) — more so when consumers in Western democracies are overwhelmingly against sexism.

Natacha Rambova and Rudolph Valentino

And five. Leaving aside the crude logic of capitalism (which surely encourages feminist messages and attitudes in companies, and not the opposite) let’s look at the specifics of this particular controversy. This is Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, on Freakonomics Radio:

“[Women] don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth. […] Women love to carry a snack in their purse.”

To maintain that these statements (and the associated product) are misogynistic, or insulting to women, you have to believe that these particular decisions or behaviours are bad — ie, it is bad to avoid “crunching too loudly in public”, it is bad to not “lick [one’s] fingers generously”, and it is bad to like “to carry a snack in [one’s] purse”. If PepsiCo release a product that supposedly addresses these preferences, and target consumers who would say these things, and tell us that it is women who generally think that way, and then (some) women find that deeply offensive, we must conclude that (those) women think that it is a bad idea to not crunch loudly, to resist the urge to lick one’s fingers, or to want to carry a snack around.

No?

Probably not.

Let’s try to understand this in a different light: surely the same things that offended some women should offend some men if they had been associated with male buyers in the first place. (Otherwise, we would be left with the puzzle of a line of products that is offensive when it’s targeted towards women, but simply neutral or even funny when it is directed at men.)

Except that doesn’t work, either. I bet that men would not feel outraged by that. Some men would like the product because it would fit in the pockets of their coats. Some men would switch to that type of Doritos if they feel that they are sometimes too noisy munching in public transport. Perhaps most men would simply ignore it. And perhaps some women would like the idea and buy the product, too (in the same way they now buy certain products that are targeted at men, and vice versa).

So, strike two.

But I think I understand it now. “Lady Doritos” are offensive and misogynistic because they reinforce the stereotype that women tend to be less loud and more respectful of others (“less crunching”) and keep themselves cleaner or have better manners (“no licking fingers”).

Except that… those stereotypes seem quite positive to me. If they are degrading to someone, certainly it must be degrading for men (because they would be assumed louder, less respectful, messier and ruder). And yet, for some reason, I can’t remember a single feminist who opposed “Doritos for women” on the basis that they reinforce the unfair idea that women are better mannered and more respectful, and the unfair idea that men tend to be annoying and dirty

But I have another idea.

It goes like this. Feminists think that all prejudices are bad. “Lady Doritos” reinforces the prevailing stereotype that women have better manners and are more respectful of others. Therefore, a campaign that countered that stereotype, would be a good thing, since it would push in the appropriate direction and ultimately contribute to cancel the stereotype. (Here I’m borrowing from the same logic that gave us positive discrimination, gender quotas, “women are better leaders” and “to run ‘like a girl’ is a good thing” — surely those counter-stereotypes are celebrated by mainstream feminism).

Let’s give that a go:

“[Women] love to crunch loudly in public. And they love to lick their fingers generously and they love to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth. […] Women don’t like to carry a snack in their purse.”

And then launch a line of extra-crunchy, very sticky, greasy Doritos, on a larger bag. (A bag of any colour other than pink.) And target that at women.

That would surely contribute to create a more egalitarian society, and would be received with joy by third-wave feminists.

But we know it wouldn’t.

I’ll make just one more attempt at making sense of this.

In this scenario, feminists oppose all stereotypes, even counter-stereotypes that could balance things out in favour of women. The logic is that a truly egalitarian society should be gender-blind in all respects; except presumably for the most basic anatomical or physiological differences between the sexes. (For the sake of the argument, let’s ignore that mainstream feminists generally celebrate and promote “positive” stereotypes and “positive” discrimination…) According to this worldview, every manifestation of our culture should be “neutral”: from marketing of sports cars to promotion of gossip magazines, and from gender ratios at medical schools to recruitment quotas for oil platforms.

According to this theory, segmentation of products would be okay, but it would be wrong to target lines of products explicitly at certain demographics. Thus consumers would be truly free to choose. Because the colour pink or the word “warrior” would never be associated to a gender in particular in any expression of culture (like advertising, films, pop music, job descriptions, political campaigns, etc), perfect balance between men and women would be expected to emerge naturally, along any dimension we cared to measure (again, except for what is directly related to basic anatomical or physiological differences between the sexes).

Obviously, in this world, the same line of reasoning would have to apply to all other similarly “just” causes, like anti-aspectism, the visibility of the Roma, and fighting stereotypes about politicians, the Poles, schizophrenics and septuagenarians (or else it would be blatant hypocrisy), and extended to as many manifestations of culture and everyday life as possible (because, what good would it be if advertising was carefully policed, while comments, gestures, hobbies, jokes or furniture remained stubbornly gendered?).

Hopefully I don’t need to delve into the sort of regressive, paranoid, tyrannical society that such ideas would engender. We would have to say good-bye to humour, irony and romance first. The whole literary canon might have to go, and most other works of fiction would need to be censored, or heavily sanitised, to avoid traces of discrimination and inequality. A steep decline in labour productivity, health indicators and overall happiness would presumably follow as individuals are forced to fit into perfect egalitarian quotas regardless of their gender, race, nationality, wealth, athleticism, age, abilities and preferences. It would go downhill from there.

D. Du Boisson and E. Booker operating Colossus

In reality, there is nothing inherently wrong about producing different goods and telling certain subsets of consumers “we designed this with you in mind”. If certain variants of products are clearly inferior (eg, a vehicle that is speed-limited), silly (eg, something more expensive for no good reason), neutral or irrelevant (eg, a mere change in colour), consumers will silently condemn it to irrelevance.

Denying that men and women show different preferences and shopping patterns, and that a good part of those differences have no relation to societal pressure or nurture is not only impractical and patronising….

Men and women approach shopping with different motives, perspectives, rationales, and considerations. There is a decade worth of scientific research on this subject, which shows that there are observable differences in how men and women behave as shoppers. […] Gaining an understanding of how gender differences influence purchase decisions and recognizing gender-specific tendencies (not stereotypes!) is important for any business that sells to people — and wants to do so more effectively.”

…but also anti-scientific:

“Women tended to have hedonic value as their shopping orientation, while men tended to have utilitarian orientation.”

But I guess we have to assume this is the flippant framework through which so many feminists are examining “controversies” like “Doritos for women”. It has to be, because we ran out of all other plausible interpretations of events.

Approaching Omaha

The other night, these were the thoughts about this particular “controversy” inside my head — and they stayed mostly there. The debate quickly broke down into single-sentence exchanges and heated interruptions (of which I’m no less guilty than the others). I could not make much sense of what my friends said, being alone against the opinions of two (sometimes four) other people. I failed to lay out my reasons for scepticism or indifference about the launch of “Lady Doritos”, and they failed to explain to me in clear terms what was so worrying or symptomatic about it.

This specific example of alleged sexism gave way, way too early for my taste, to other loosely related instances of sexism in the media and in advertising. I would have liked to pursue the conversation further (and in a calmer way), until either I understood why something like “Lady Doritos” is degrading to women or misogynistic or even deserves to be regulated or prohibited, or the others admitted that the product was at most a harmless case of clumsy PR or poor market research.

If you disagree with my assessment of the case, I have a favour to ask of you:

Explain, in four sentences or less, what is the problem with “Doritos for women”. I take it that you view that idea as either “unfair”, “discriminatory”, “patriarchal”, “oppressive”, “offensive”, or a combination of the above — but feel free to correct me, and to amend or extend that list. Your explanation has to be specific to this case, and understandable without generic references to abstract theories.