Newsflash: sex invented in 1985

This piece in the Age by Michael Scammell manages to hit nearly all my hot buttons at once. It includes generation-game garbage, postmodernist apologias for the advertising industry, support for exploitation of workers, and heaps of all-round stupidity. The background to the story, it appears, is that a clothing store called Westco required its female staff to wear T-shirts carrying a lame double entendre. One worker refused, and the Victorian Minister for Women’s Affairs, Mary Delahunty protested, with the result that the company abandoned the promotion. Scammell attempts to set Ms Delahunty straight on the subject of postmodernist irony.

The headline (not picked by the author, but a direct lift from the article) is Sex sells. Gen X knows this. MPs don’t. I know every generation is supposed to imagine that it invented sex, but not even the most self-indulgent of baby boomers would have the chutzpah to claim this insight as their own. Vance Packard was making hay with this kind of thing back in the 50s, and it was tired old stuff even then. In fact, the basic point predates the wheel. Hasn’t Scammell heard the phrase “the oldest profession”?

Then he claims that the slogan on the T-shirt “stop pretending you don’t want me” represents ” a dollop of knowing post-modernist irony”. If this is post-modernist irony, I’ll stick with the modernist version, or better still that of the classics like Dr Johnson.

But for all-round stupidity you can’t beat Scammell’s observation that it must be all right because ‘Westco reports a significant public demand for the T-shirt despite its seemingly offensive message”. Can’t he see that there’s a big difference between wearing a provocative T-shirt to advertise your own wares to members of the opposite (or perhaps your own) gender, and being made to wear one to flog the wares of your employer, who is doubtless offering little more than the minimum wage for the privilege. Obviously the Westco worker who refused to wear the shirt and made a fuss about it could do so. (In a non sequitur that’s typical of the piece, Scammell asserts that since this worker was willing to stand up for herself, there can’t have been a problem in the first place).

Scammell goes on about “grid girls” at the Grand Prix, and near-naked models at fashion shows, but these workers know what they are offering from the start and (at least in the case of successful models) are paid accordingly. If he wants to work out what’s going on here, Scammell would be well advised to go back to school and learn some old-fashioned class analysis instead of the 1990s postmodernism he apparently thinks is still hip.

17 thoughts on “Newsflash: sex invented in 1985

  1. Class my …. John! It’s all about values, taste and decent manners, which by the way, lefties are allowed to have, or are you hinting that its OK for these girls to wear the T-Shirts if they’re paid like high class models? We’ve established what you are madam, we’re just haggling about the price!

  2. I think John had the same sense of rage as myself when this article was read.

    Scammell was apologising for thuggish actions of Westco in forcing their employees (I didn’t consider the wage area) to wear those demeaning t-shirts. Even worse was that Westco specifically retaliated when staff criticised the move, and only backed down under public pressure. Scammell should try being a young person working in retail (like myself) who knows about all the crap and intimidation that goes on. John distilled the argument when he pointed out that people may choose to wear the t-shirt but it is another thing entirely to coerce people through economic means to do so.

    And as my much more fashionable girlfriend pointed out, Westco’s clothes suck anyway, in both design and quality.

  3. Yeah, Westco’s gear is about as fashionable as their PR stunts. Scammell is a wannabe stick poker.

  4. Observa:
    John didn’t say anything about money or partisan politics, so why do you?

  5. The reference to the supposed wages is irrelavant. The T shirts are an invitation to customers to sexually harrass staff members. Hence this creates an unsafe workplace.

    This is wrong regardless of the wages paid.

  6. Talk about non-sequiturs

    Westco reports a significant public demand for the T-shirt despite its seemingly offensive message”.

    The idea that a product can sell because it is offensive seems to have escaped Mr Scammell’s attention, or perhaps he just does not care because he enjoys being rude.
    In general, cultural analysis seems to treat economic power as a dependent variable to cultural ideas. This is turning Marx on his head, an undignified position for the Old Fellow.

  7. Michael Scammell is indeed a “wannabe stick poker” A former media officer for the US Consulate in Melbourne, he now works as a PR hack for the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. That’s when he’s not writing silly Op Eds for The Age, of which there’s been quite a few.

    On one hand, he styles himself as a classic libertarian
    http://64.233.167.104/search?q=cache:PNfsE9eZt14J:www.realfooty.theage.com.au/articles/2003/05/21/1053196637931.html
    but he’s equally happy to let fly with the odd shock-jock style anti-feminist rant http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/03/27/1017206115702.html I suspect that his latest piece is more cognate with the latter “bad Michael” than might at first be realised.

    His dressing-up of the debate here as a generational one is all the more offensive because of the searing irony in Scammell’s being given a regular gig in The Age’s boomer-dominated Op Ed pages. AFAIK, he is one of very few regular writers without any institutional (academia, thinktank etc) oomph behind them, and he is almost certainly the only GenXer to have such a privileged freelance arrangement with The Age.

    In other words, Scammell isn’t just a mediocre intellect venting his personal problems through the Op Ed pages. He’s a corporate lickspittle sell-out – which means IMO he ain’t no GenXer, whatever his date of birth.

  8. While I agreed with most of the complaints, that were also in an Age article that condemned Westco, I found myself confronted by the Age’s own illustration. It showed the complainant herself (Sarah Freeman?) displaying the offending item in a way that was, ahem, what the article purported to condemn; neither she nor the Age seemed to have a problem with that, though of course the journalists may have tricked her. Also, the Age has repeated the same photograph in follow up articles. There appears to be a certain amount of hypocrisy here, regardless of the soundness of the principle.

  9. There is no exploitation in this story? And I’m sorry, but using economic influence is not coercion. Coercion comes about through threatening to take away something that is yours… influence is about threatening to not give you something that wasn’t yours in the first place. Both of these things are about changing incentives to influence behaviour, but one is coercive (based on violence, and should be illegal) and the other is not (and should be legal).

    People use influence all the time, sometimes to do things that we strongly object to. Blogs themselves are a form of influence. Pretecting people’s right to try and influence others is fundamental to protecting freedom.

    The behaviour of the shop may have been wrong, but it shouldn’t be illegal – unless arrangements were made in a pre-existing work contract.

  10. Scammell doesn’t get it.

    It’s one thing to use sex in an advertising campaign but it’s another to require employees to wear t-shirts which make them magnets for unwanted sexual attention.

    It’s easy to say that customers aren’t stupid enough to mistake a t-shirt slogan for an invitation to harass a sales assistant but unfortunately experience shows that’s giving some customers too much credit.

    In the US the supermarket store Safeway demanded that checkout operators smile and make eye contact with customers. To most customers that was just politeness… but some customers seemed to interpret it differently.

    11 female and one male employee man filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

    Maybe if Scammel offers to sell you his second hand car you should ask him for a quickie to sweeten the deal. After all, everyone knows sex sell autos.

    http://starbulletin.com/98/09/03/news/story7.html

    http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/stories/1998/09/14/editorial1.html

  11. “The behaviour of the shop may have been wrong, but it shouldn’t be illegal – unless arrangements were made in a pre-existing work contract.”

    There’s the sexual harassment laws, which explicitly prohibit this kind of thing, and which carry the same legal weight as any pre-existing work contract between employer and employee.

    Was this sexual harassment? According to news reports, one customer came into the shop, stared at the complainants breasts, and said

    “Five Cougars, thanks”

    which we can assume was the kind of the response Westco management intended to elicit from their customers

  12. Stalin – my point would be that the law is wrong. Therefore, I don’t accept arguments that are based on the current law.

    I should be able to offer you $2 to sit naked on your roof clucking like a chicken. You should be able to say ‘no’. I’m using my ‘economic power’ to try and influence you… but I’m not being violent or coercive and so my actions shouldn’t be illegal.

  13. I should add (and this is probably what others will find controversial about my position) that I don’t believe people have a divine right to their job. They have their job through a mutual agreement. It was not provided by God. Therefore it will end as soon as either party is no longer happy with the requirements of the other.

    In short – if either party doesn’t like the deal, they can leave.

  14. “my point would be that the law is wrong. Therefore, I don’t accept arguments that are based on the current law. ”

    I believe the law against mass murder is wrong. Therefore, I believe that Martin Bryant was unjustly convicted and imprisoned, and that he should be released immediately.

  15. Why do you believe the law against mass murder is wrong Dave? John just provided reasons why he thinks the law against this kind of “sexual harassment” is wrong. Provide yours.

    What nobody seems to have pointed out yet, is that the employee in question “Sarah” is probably oblivious to the fact that she only has her job because of her looks in the first place. After all, you don’t get shirts like that printed up so you can put them on a bunch of slappers, do you?

    How many ugly shop assistants do you see at Westco, or Live, Sanity et al. Not very many. It’s ok for Sarah to get her job because she’s a looker, but god forbid anyone should draw attention to that fact.

    If she has other qualities other than her looks, she should have no problems getting a job in a different retail outlet that didn’t rely on fashion statements to stand out. Like a jewellery store. Nobody is forcing her to work at Westco, right?

  16. Sex: it’s everywhere
    This captures the double standard about sexuality in contemporary culture. It states the obvious: “We live in an age where

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