Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Thorny Issue

In my day-to-day life, I work as an External Communications Specialist for a manufacturer. My employer is in several markets and industries, and chief among them is the AV world. In this blog, and most of my other writing, I really try to keep my work world separate from my personal stuff like cricket, dad-hood, and life in general.
But there has been an issue rearing its head over the past few years in the AV industry that has had me thinking. The issue is about so-called “booth babes,” and it has been a hot topic of discussion in the AV world following the InfoComm trade show in July.
Booth babes are young women—typically scantily-clad—who are employed by exhibitors in trade shows to try and entice people—men, obviously—into their booths, or, at least, to get people to have their badges scanned by the exhibitor to be added to a mailing list.
Others, including my boss, have discussed this within the context of industry forums and blogs, and I want to tread carefully here and say my thoughts do not represent those of my employer. But I wanted to address the issue because it concerns me as a human being—not as a man, as a human being.
Here’s the issue, in a nutshell: Most of the time these booth models have no product knowledge and are simply there to flash some skin and lure male attendees into the booth. If those attendees need some real knowledge about a product, they are probably out of luck. There have been many voices decrying the practice, and some who say they refuse to visit companies who use this tactic in a trade show environment that is full of professionals simply trying to get information on new products. Many people—especially some women who make up a growing demographic in the AV industry—feel uncomfortable being approached in this way, and see it as unprofessional at the least and insulting at the worst. Many women have said they feel it is proof that they are not accepted as equals in the industry, and that the only accepted role for them is as “eye-candy” rather than trusted and equal colleagues. There have been some calling for InfoComm to take steps to discourage such behavior—without getting too much into the business of telling companies how they can go about their business.
There has also been the inevitable backlash from people who say there’s nothing wrong with the practice. Arguments range from “this is my job” and “it’s just having some fun” to the old chestnut that it’s about people trying to put their Victoriana/Puritan values onto others.One of my AV friends has also pointed out that by talking about the practice we are giving these companies the attention they want (a valid argument, which is why I’m not mentioning any company names here). There have also been accusations that any men who find issue with this practice are trying to serve as protectors of women’s virtues, which is just as bad as exploiting women’s sexuality for personal/financial gain.
These all might be somewhat valid points for some. But my own interest in this has nothing to do with those things. I oppose the use of “booth babes” for several reasons, but not because I think women in the AV industry need protecting by me, a male (they don’t—one of the first things I learned in college from my women friends was that they did not need defending or protecting and this lesson has been hammered home by my own five-year-old daughter); nor is it a question of wanting to put Victorian/Puritan/conservative values on others (I am, as friends and family will attribute, about as lefty a liberal as you can find in the Midwestern United States). I don’t oppose booth babes because I don’t like women in revealing outfits, or because I don’t want women (or men) to enjoy the freedom to wear whatever they want whenever they want, or do whatever job they want while doing it, or because I have something against sex and sexuality (I don’t-I’m a big fan).
I oppose this “booth babes” thing because, just as many women in the AV industry (and in life in general), I as a male resent being reduced to a stereotype. We see so much of this tripe in day-to-day life: women are conniving and smart but weak so must use their sexual wiles to manipulate the desired outcome from the lunkhead men who think with their willies. Those stereotypes are wrong on both counts (at least I hope so!). I oppose it because I don’t need a carnival barker to try and trick me into coming into the tent to view the three-headed monkey who speaks three languages. I also oppose it because, even though people say it isn’t exploitive of women, I don’t see any scantily-clad muscular men populating booths to try and attract the increasing number of women in the AV industry. I also oppose it as a marketer, because it is such a cop-out to go with the “sex sells” approach.
It all adds up to this, for me: By using sex to “sell” in this manner, what we as a society are actually saying is that your sex and sexuality don’t belong to you; it belongs to someone else—whoever has the most money or power or fewest scruples to use it. And it isn’t the models’ fault for wearing scanty clothing or looking a certain way. It is our fault because we are commoditizing it. So, since sex and sexuality are now separated from the person, then that person is simply the holder of the commodity we want—and her existence as a person is not so important. She is only a delivery system.
We are dehumanizing her.
And now we are walking down the road to misogyny. And we have many current political examples of where that leads.
That may sound over the top, but it is why I oppose “booth babes.”
And in deference to an AV friend who rightly points out that by talking about it too much we may be helping to spread the word about the practice, I will now stop typing.

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