This is a guest post by Echo Zen. Echo is a feminist filmmaker and women’s health advocate who works to educate communities and families about health, sexuality and respect. His goal is to someday honour his peers by becoming a champion for reproductive justice, through his work as an educator and filmmaker. In his spare time he bakes pasta, reads children’s books and designs puppets from household objects.
“It sounds ludicrous. Let’s try it.”
“Good. I’m down for anything involving karate and contraception.”*
As Feministe readers may have noticed lately, my crew of summer film students and I have been making short films on kung fu condoms over the past few months. In August we were slated to produce a video on women’s self-defence, but at the eleventh hour we opted for something a bit less conventional. We thought up our new premise while searching YouTube for Tea Party rallies and Jackie Chan clips: “In the near future, extremist politicians has taken over America and banned condoms, because condoms are evil. Trained assassins have been deployed to track down wily condom smugglers, whom they engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat.” Bourne meets Bachmann.
We recently uploaded the second episode to YouTube, where it racked up 1,500 views in a week, thanks to Feministe and afterward Tumblr. For a project that began as an inside feminist joke, it was surprising. And it’s made me wonder if better advertising might be the key to normalising women’s health issues into public discourse.
Ever wonder why marriage equality seems to be outpacing reproductive equality in the States? Perhaps it’s because LGBT Americans have had more success at normalising their voices into the public discourse than we have – for Pete’s sake, the marriage equality people have a Prop 8 musical with Jack Black as Jesus. Where’s our pro-choice Neil Patrick Harris? Where are the humourous adverts acknowledging that women use contraception for pregnancy prevention? Where are the pro-choice comedians who crack jokes about fertilised eggs being people?
LGBT advocates have helped to foster an environment – through sitcoms, reality shows, Hollywood comedies, etc – where it’s not only acceptable but fashionable to embrace and acknowledge such issues. In fact, I’d go further and argue that marriage equality is gaining support precisely because LGBT advocates have fostered an environment where companies have a vested interest in commodifying LGBT identity – through shows like “Queer Eye” and “Glee” – into something to be marketed and sold.
Would LGBT identity be as accepted as it is now if Madison Avenue and Wall Street hadn’t helped to legitimise the LGBT demographic by acknowledging the significance of LGBT Americans as a demographic and as consumers? I doubt it. I’m starting to suspect the key to normalising women’s health into public discourse is to foster an environment where the major cultural institutions in America – Madison Avenue, Hollywood, etc – have a vested interest in legitimising women’s health issues in order to sell things to women. It worked for condoms and breast cancer awareness – for all its shortcomings, the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s pink ribbon campaign has had an immeasurable impact on normalising breast cancer into something survivors can bring into daily conversation without being labeled as defective or unfeminine. And condoms would be nowhere near as popular as they are today if condom manufacturers hadn’t figured out that the key to promoting use (and fighting condom fatigue) is to market condoms as hip and empowering, rather than as healthcare devices.
Yes, commodification often has negative connotations in feminist contexts – the pink ribbon campaign is rife with pinkwashing by businesses peddling products linked to breast cancer. But like it or not, institutions like Madison Avenue and Wall Street are still the most powerful powerbrokers in society – they create norms and legitimise existing ones through commodification. To succeed at de-stigmatising women’s health issues like contraception and HPV, our strategies must ultimately involve securing legitimisation through these institutions, the same way condom and breast cancer awareness campaigns succeeded at normalising their causes into U.S. culture.
But how we do cultivate an environment where that’s possible? The more civilised countries like England may already be airing adverts for abortion services on TV, but the U.S. is years away from a future where makers of birth control pills can even mention pregnancy in their own ads – since the 1960s, most U.S. networks have unilaterally banned contraception adverts that focus on pregnancy prevention over “health-related uses.” (Evidently family planning’s not a health issue.) Even on primetime U.S. television, where the majority of shows contain sexual references or depictions, only 14 percent bother mentioning contraception at all.
That’s absurd. Virtually all sexually active women in the U.S. – over 99 percent, in fact – have used contraception, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. Yet women’s contraceptive experiences and even existence are routinely obliterated from public view. We’re left in an awkward situation where the majority of women use birth control, yet live in a culture that gives free reign to misogynist pundits and politicos to smear contraception users as irresponsible sluts who can’t keep their legs shut – with nary a peep of public outrage from the 99 percent of women using contraception.
If most Americans are unwilling to speak out in defence of something as basic and universally accepted as contraception, then it’s no wonder that anti-choice extremists are so confident they can wage war on our abortion rights without fear of backlash from the solid majority of Americans who support choice. This year we’ve seen extremist politicians drop any pretense that their war on women is about protecting “fetal life” – the façade of concern is giving way to reveal the foundation of their movement all along: their fanatical hatred of women having any control over their bodies whatsoever, whether through contraception, anti-rape laws, HPV vaccines, etc.
It’s obvious that traditional media outlets are in no position (or mood) to make our voices heard, not when it’s of no benefit to them – i.e. there’s no money to be made. And the U.S. news media routinely engages in complicity with anti-choice extremists, courting controversy by granting “equal time” to anti-choice fairy tales, blindly reporting them as facts.
What other channels are left for us? We do have the Web, through which we’ve routinely publicized the facts, debunked the myths and blogged our stories for years. Yet, vocal as we’ve been, our strategies have done little to stem the avalanche of anti-choice extremism that’s swept the U.S. in the past year alone. We have to rethink our strategy, with our ultimate goal being to legitimise our presence as a massive demographic – the majority, in fact. Some in the U.S. media (besides Rachel Maddow) are just now starting to realise anti-choicers despise contraception as vehemently as they do abortion. This is the time to educate Americans that this fight is about more than abortion rights. Abortion, contraception and family planning are all part of the same reviled fabric of reproductive healthcare that anti-choicers want to shred, as part of their war on women’s ability to control any part of their bodies.
To reframe the discourse, we need the same conditions that enabled breast cancer and HIV advocates to normalise their causes into public discourse – 1) public access to the facts, 2) public figures speaking out about their reproductive health choices, and 3) the reorientation of our narratives within the larger framework of community. We’re people’s mothers, sisters and friends – our reproductive choices ensure the wellbeing of society. This is about more than individuals. It’s about society’s health.
But the most formidable obstacle to de-stigmatising reproductive health is the denial of our voices by traditional media outlets. The prevailing mentality that those who use family planning services are irresponsible sluts who can’t keep their legs shut is why media outlets feel free to discount our voices – they’re more concerned with fallout from a vocal, extremist and fanatical anti-choice minority than they are about the 99 percent of women who use contraception and other family planning services like the rest of us.
If we can’t make ourselves heard through traditional outlets, then we need to generate enough noise through our own outlets to pull our voices from the periphery into the mainstream, where they belong. Whether it involves provocative posters, viral videos or shockvertising campaigns, our messaging needs to appeal to the mainstream media’s need to commodify attention-grabbing stories like “Prop 8 – The Musical” or Rape Crisis Scotland’s brilliant PSA, for their own benefit and advertising revenue. If our messages are compelling enough that the traditional media’s thirst for ratings outweighs their fear of anti-choice hostility, then that’s one more pro-choice voice injected into the national dialogue. Outrageous antics are how anti-choicers ironically make their lies and myths part of the mainstream – I suspect we can do better than their offensive tactics. And I’m fairly certain we can do better than kung fu condoms.
In all honesty, it’ll take a generation of advocates to develop a reproductive rights organising model where we go beyond clinging to what few reproductive rights we have left, and instead fight to expand reproductive equality to all women. The irony of this war on women’s health is that we’re having enough trouble simply maintaining the status quo, yet our highest priority must ultimately be to break the stalemate. The alternative is inaction, sticking with strategies of stasis rather than victory. And we all know how far that’s gotten us in the past few decades.
* Yes, I know karate and kung fu aren’t the same. Karate is Japanese. Kung fu is Chinese. “Kung fu condoms” is a strictly colloquial term. The system used in our films is Filipino, emphasising the usability of household objects as improvised weapons. That’s why our characters fight with forks and purple vibes. Someday they may fight with IUDs as well – the tips on those things can be quite sharp.