Booberday: Painting It Pink Doesn't Make It Less Sexist
By avflox on September 16, 2011
BlogHer Original Post
"Booberday" is a Saturday event made popular on the social network Google Plus that promotes posting images of breasts. The origin of this meme is debated. Some have said that it's meant to raise awareness of breast cancer, while others have made it clear their participation is only to get back at users who flood the stream with pictures and animated GIFs of cats, another meme that occurs on Saturdays known as "Caturday."
As Google Plus user Brett Bjornsen explained in a comment: "We were sitting in a hangout last weekend, and saw our stream bombarded by Caturday pictures... the topic turned to what would trump cats on the internet... and well... the term 'Booberday' was born.... and a website was created... and the rest is history."
Said website, booberday.com, now features links to cancer organizations "to support," though the links do not direct users to donation pages, and in any event, these are at the bottom below posts about recent upheaval surrounding the meme, which claims to be "all about raising awareness in an atmosphere of fun and mutual respect." These items are closely followed by a call to action to send e-mail submissions of breasts to firstname.lastname@example.org -- because nothing says "let's donate to cancer research" like motorboating, the act of burying one's face between breasts, shaking it violently and making a brrrrrr sound.
The issue of "Booberday" came to a head Saturday when Google Plus power user and tech pundit Robert Scoble decided to participate in the meme by posting a close-up of a friend's breasts. The post was initially well-received, if you can call the online equivalent of wolf-whistling a good reception.
But when some of Scoble's followers, particularly women followers, brought up the impropriety of the image, Scoble ignored their remarks, finally arguing weakly that his friend had allowed him to take a photo and post it, making it acceptable for him to do so. Mostly, Scoble engaged users who supported the posting and those who claimed to be behind "Booberday," apologizing for being unable to join their Hangout on Google Plus (a live webcam-enabled form of discussion on the network). The link to the Hangout was posted several times throughout the comment thread.
When women expressed disappointment in Scoble for the photograph, his male followers went on the defensive, with comments ranging from "lighten up" to insults such as: "We can't all have a little fun at the expense of breasts when there are mugs out there for breast cancer awareness that read 'FEEL YOUR BOOBIES'? I can't speak for all commenters above, but none of my posts were meant as demeaning or degrading. If you're reading them this way, then you're just too insecure." and "Funny how weird, frustrated feminist radicals call cleavage 'perverse'. What do these dried up virgins do when they get out of the shower?"
Male commenters came out of the woodwork, exhorting Scoble to refrain from apologizing for posting such an image. Scoble's response to the critique was again weak: "Heard and noted. I did it to, well, have a little fun on a Friday night. Part of having a heatlhy [sic] community is being able to not always take things so seriously." His post was "plussed" (the Google Plus equivalent of the Facebook like) 29 times.
Finally, someone pinned a pink ribbon on it, though the Scoble post and most other such "Booberday" posts had made no mention of breast cancer awareness or included any way to contribute to cancer research. The point of "Booberday," Karen Prior said in Scoble's post, "is breast awareness, there is nothing demeaning about it. The people who are in the 'booberday hangout' have not posted any content that is nudity and as the older female of the hangout, I find it amusing and lightens a topic that can be scary for many others."
JUST PAINT IT PINK
As someone who writes about sex, I receive a fair amount of press releases from everyone -- from lingerie companies to sex toy companies to porn studios, if it's sex or sexy, I've gotten the press release for it. In preparation for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, it seems everyone and their publicist is looking for a tie-in to sell more products. I have nothing against companies that want to donate a percentage of their proceeds to cancer research, but to get a press release from a porn site that thinks that slapping a pink ribbon on its main page and dedicating the coming weeks to tit-fucking and motorboating is a great way to raise awareness is just wrong.
Tacking on a pink ribbon to something doesn't make sliver of a difference in the fight against cancer. The color pink doesn't inform anyone about what cancer means. If it did, people wouldn't launch campaigns like "Save the boobs" and "Booberday" which completely ignore the fact that when it comes to cancer, in order to save the woman, sometimes one breast or both breasts have to go. Women with cancer don't need to be bombarded with messages about the importance of their breasts. They need to be reminded of their importance as human beings.
Just where is "save the woman" in all this? And where is "save the man," for that matter? Breast cancer happens to men, too. But in the great rush to allow ourselves to stare, joke, post images of breasts and rebrand products as "cause-focused" we forget all of these things. That doesn't help cancer -- and worse, it's offensive.
I'm tired of people and companies using illness and tragedy as a way to hype their products and services. I wonder sometimes when I look at campaigns for products that purport to help a cause how much more good that company could do if instead of giving a tiny percentage of every sale to them, they gave the cause all the money they put into the advertising campaign and their especially branded and colored packaging. But at least those companies are giving a small percentage to a group that can help the situation. More often than not, things are simply done in the name of "awareness."
It's been 26 years since National Breast Cancer Awareness Month was founded. I think we're aware enough. Now we need to act.
The response women received from men on Robert Scoble's thread is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. The first and most important is that Robert Scoble has made himself one of the most popular technology commentators on the social web. His opinion matters and whether he realizes it or not, his behavior affects the way that his followers behave, in much the same way that the cool kid in class affects the way his peers behave.
As a woman who has reported on the web and tech space for the past couple of years, I know how brutal a place it can be for women. I've been propositioned, harassed, groped, threatened, and blatantly objectified a number of times and when I finally reported on it, my credibility as a journalist was immediately called into question -- for talking with a start-up founder in an environment that served alcohol, as though I was taking advantage of him by standing there hearing him tell me I had a flat ass, and no, that it wasn't a compliment, in case I was wondering.
This sort of environment doesn't invite the participation of women. Those of us who have been in it for longer than a minute have a thicker skin, but we also have less tolerance for the behavior that contributes to this hostile environment. Those who do not think that an environment that fosters the assessment of people based on their body parts instead of their abilities is damaging to the technology community do a gross disservice to it.
I'm not saying that no one should ever post photographs of women. I support art and I support self-expression and if you follow me on Google Plus, you know that I am concerned about the community guidelines that ban any kind of sexually suggestive imagery. I believe that we should be able to express ourselves as artists, photographers, models and the owners of these blessed physical bodies we have, but I believe in granting these things the appropriate context. A post about how much you appreciate your community doesn't fit with a picture of a headless pair of breasts, even if those breasts are covered by a low-cut shirt that says "I <3 my internet friends."
Robert Scoble is respected in the community and with that respect comes responsibility. He has the power to set an example about how women should be treated. That doesn't mean that he should become infallible; he's human and he will make mistakes. However, he should consider the response to his actions, especially the response voiced by people who are represented in his posts -- and he should respond to them and refuse to allow them to be harassed for voicing their opinion.
When women spoke out against the picture, he didn't immediately respond. This told his followers that these concerns don't merit a response. That, in my opinion, is worse than posting a photo of breasts. His inaction signaled "your opinions don't matter" to women, which set the tone for his male followers.
When these followers began to mock and attack those who objected, he didn't stop them, allowing the dismissals and insults to escalate. That is worse than posting breasts and worse than not responding to those who stated that they felt the picture was inappropriate. This inaction on his part signaled that not only did women's opinions not matter, they were to be silenced by whatever means, be they ridicule or intimidation.
You don't get the joke, you dried up prude. You don't know how to have fun.
The unfortunate thing is that the great fun these guys were having was happening at the expense of the comfort of women who look to Robert Scoble for insight and support as they navigate the world of technology, social media and the web. By staying silent as women expressed their discomfort and allowing them to be attacked, Scoble gave his approval to the most corrosive, demoralizing and stereotypically sexist behavior. His post became a perfect illustration of an aspect of sexism the tech industry is continuously hoping to disprove.
Even more unfortunate, I know Robert Scoble. He's a good guy. I know he knew some people may take offense when confronted with that image, but I don't think he understood the implications. If he had, I have no doubt he wouldn't have posted it. This is why I wrote about this, not to call him out, but to give him and others the time to reflect on what happened and learn from this experience so we can grow as a community and move toward something better.
Because when you think about it, this is more than a matter of "uncircle if you don't like it" and "start another meme if you don't like it" and it certainly is not "being a modern woman means not letting this sort of thing bother you." This man is a prominent figure. He shapes the way people look at the world and what he says and doesn't say, what he does and chooses not to do, makes a difference. As long as people -- especially those in prominent positions -- fail to understand the ripples their actions and words cause, we will not progress beyond this status quo.
And make no mistake, for women -- especially women in technology and on the web -- this is not a good status quo.