Look, about that damn topless gnome…

“The greatest challenge to implementing social media within any organisation is the willingness for that organisation to accept the cultural change that will ultimately occur. And occur dramatically and at a rapid pace. Social media holds a mirror up to an organization from the external customers/clients/constituents that shows an authentic, and sometimes unexpected, face.”Nick Hodge

“I’d add that that face is almost always unexpected.”Mark Pesce (in private conversation)

Topless gnome Gnaomi, standing near the book The State of Africa by Martin Meredith, from the opening to Stilgherrian Live episode 48

Clearly I’m not going to get anything else written until I respond to The Gnome Situation. I’ve been reading the comments and mulling possible responses for days. It’s getting in the way of actual, productive work. So here we go.

No. I will not be removing Gnaomi from my desk.

Discussing an issue as important as rape through the proxy of an anthropomorphised piece of clay seems, to me, a poor tactic. Nor will I compromise the actual or perceived independence of my media output, no matter how worthy the cause.

There’ll probably be people at ActionAid who won’t like or understand that outcome, so here’s the long explanation…

Certainly appalling sexual crimes are committed against women. Certainly such crimes include, at their core, the psychology of men viewing those women as mere objects for their gratification, or to smash to assert their power. Having been close to people who’ve experienced sexual abuse, some of it violent, I have a little understanding of the damage it causes.

A little.

I’m sure that ActionAid deals with people who’ve suffered even more horrific violations. I cannot imagine what those people have gone through, and still go through, and actually I do not wish to be able to imagine it.

Elissa Cameron and Clare Werbeloff wave the Australian flag during the Big Day Out in Homebush Pic. Chris Hyde

Now there’s a conversation we can and should have about the way women are portrayed in our society.

Why do we have continuing allegations of sexual assault against footballers who are meant to be role models? That’s deeply problematic not because the sex happened in a group, but the power relationships and consent — or the lack thereof.

Why has almost all of the analysis of that debacle, like Annabel Crabb’s, been about how the men’s sexuality is framed, but not why young women become attracted to ignorant thugs? Not that that’s an excuse for those men’s behaviour, of course, but it is another layer to the complexity of the situation.

Screenshot from Channel 7 program Deal or No Deal

Why do early-evening TV game shows have a male host to lead the conversation, with women reduced to being decorative stands for the cases of cash — all dressed identically to further reduce their humanity?

Why does a nation like the United States go into paroxysms because a woman’s breast was exposed at a football match, and yet doesn’t bat an eyelid over nightly fictional slaughter on TV? Or over the actual, non-fictional slaughter by gunfire of 82 citizens every single day, many being suicides?

Why would a woman’s wardrobe malfunction hardly raise an eyebrow in France?

Why do trade shows like CeBIT still have booth babes who know nothing about the product? Why did NEWS.com.au describe Netregistry’s nurses as wearing “flashy outfits” when they were actually completely “covered up”? Why did I, for that matter, describe them as “naughty nurses” in the first place, referencing a popular cultural meme in a comment which probably triggered that whole discussion?

All these are important questions.

Complex questions.

Lucretia, oil on panel by Lucas Cranach, 15th–16th century. 57 × 46.5 cm.

Quite frankly, the equation “naked breasts = degradation and exploitation” is a dangerous over-simplification.

And it’s just plain wrong.

The logical gap has already been pointed out by vealmince. Yes, terrible things are done to women. But that connects back to this clay garden gnome how, exactly?

Why, as my friend and colleague Kate Carruthers asks, are naked breasts automatically “bad”, exactly?

As Joanna White (@mediamum) says, “Crap, Stil. Boobs celebrate the empowerment of women, not their degradation. Tell ’em it’s a fertility symbol.”

As Kate points out, women in cultures such as Amazonian tribes, Australia’s own Aborigines or the patrons of Bondi Beach have their breasts exposed as part of their everyday tradition — or at least they did before interfering European busy-bodies told them it was “immoral”, somehow.

After all, it was Victorian society and its suppressed sexuality which got the ignorant natives to cover up. “Victorian prudery sometimes went so far as to deem it improper to say ‘leg’ in mixed company; instead, the preferred euphemism ‘limb’ was used,” says Wikipedia.

I reckon that simplistic equation says more about how Western societies have suppressed sexuality, made it all taboo and naughty, rather than including sexuality as one component of a healthy, properly-integrated human society.

And, as my esteemed colleague Guy Rundle pointed out in Crikey the other day in relation to the NRL scandal, the men’s bad behaviour is still somehow the women’s fault. The “naked breasts = exploitation” meme is still really that old chestnut that weak men become uncontrollable sex maniacs if they’re confronted with exposed mammaries. Cover them up, lest the women be raped! Did you see how she was dressed? She had it coming!

But back to the gnome…

Screenshot from His Benevolence Stilgherrian's Christmas Message

That stupid gnome has been part of nearly every video I’ve done since His Benevolence Stilgherrrian’s Christmas Message, and it’s there precisely because it’s tasteless.

His Benevolence, as a character, is a self-indulgent despot. He therefore decorates his realm with symbols of his power. As with the Evil Genius of action-thriller fiction, powerfully sexy woman are always close at hand, reinforcing the villain’s own masculinity and self-control. But His Benevolence, laughably incompetent and barely coherent, is instead accompanied by a cheeky Benny Hill parody of those sexy women — and not even a real woman at that, but a mere garden gnome. It’s part of the shtick.

Gnaomi was even named after Naomi Robson, a television presenter whose screen presence, some might argue, was all about ego and style over substance. Remember the lizard? Gnaomi is Naomi in clay and glossy paint: truly an empty media vessel.

Photograph of Gnaomi with the face of Treasurer Wayne Swan from Stilgherrian Live episode 47

That’s why on Stilgherrian Live she takes on the face of whoever I want to ridicule that week — usually a politician or media identity, of any gender.

Actually, that’s all a bullshit justification after the fact.

What really happened is that we were shooting the Christmas Message on a tight deadline. I asked ’Pong to grab some tasteless decorations from the $2 shop, and this stupid sexist gnome was one of them. Little thought went into it, beyond “OMFG that’s so tasteless!” Perhaps that does reveal something about our attitudes to women. Who knows.

But here’s the thing. That stupid goddam gnome has starred in a dozen videos, viewed by hundreds of people. And while my audience obviously isn’t representative of the full spectrum of Australian society — no need to call in the statisticians, I do know this — I find it interesting that it’s really only the staff of ActionAid who’ve complained.

I toyed with the idea of doing a vox pop to see what women thought of the gnome, but there’s no need. When intelligent and media-savvy women like Kate Carruthers and Joanna White wonder what the issue is here, when Avril Hodge and Demi Moore call themselves @mrsnickhodge and @mrskutcher online knowing it defines them in terms of their husbands as irony, I’m reminded that we do live in a post-feminist society — and, yes, that’s a term riddled with problems.

Photograph of burlesque artist and model Dita von Teese

The original feminist stereotypes are now inadequate. We acknowledge that a woman’s sexuality can be a thing of power. Ask any burlesque performer. Ask any hooker whose business model isn’t focussed on supporting a smack habit. Gawd, if you called Adelaide übermadam Stormy Summers “exploited” she’d slap you!

Now whether our society’s norms are healthy or not, whether they’re contributing to the problem of sexual violence against women or not, is a whole ‘nuther question, and one I’m happy to discuss.

In fact, some of the discussion over at the original post is wonderful, even if it’s edging towards an aggressive tone in places. Provided it stays civil, or only mock-angry, I’d love that discussion to continue. It’ll help ActionAid find the right tone for talking about these vital issues.

But the gnome stays.

This website, stilgherrian.com, is my place. My home on the web. No-one walks into my home and tells me what to do — at least not without a warrant. Or perhaps a gun. Sorry, Archie, but “Bad news Stil the gnome has to go” and “you need to remove the gnome”, expressed as they are in the imperative voice — i.e. as an order — rub me up the wrong way, even if unintentionally.

I also don’t wish to damage my personal brand as a writer.

Part of the strength of my writing is that I call it how I see it — even if that causes a bit of shock-horror sometimes. I swear. I call for people to be killed. I tell off-colour jokes. Yeah, it’s over the top. But it’s me. And because of that, people trust what I write.

When I praised and (lightly) damned Telstra’s Next G network, for example, regular readers knew that’s because I really did like it, not because Telstra gave me a freebie. And it didn’t stop me being highly critical of Telstra’s broadband strategy, or of its outgoing CEO, or of their PR guy who played the man and not the ball.

I don’t want to lose that trust.

Photograph of Bono with two bikini-clad women

People don’t listen to Bono any more. Well, OK, that’s because Bono is a wanker. And because “strident” is a turn-off. But neither do they listen to the manicured celebrities who helicopter into disaster zones to deliver in earnest tones some carefully pre-packaged Message.

Now I did mention this in one of my video diaries, but I’ll put it here so everyone’s clear. As my original proposal said:

So that this is not, and is not perceived to be, “cash for comment”, we will need to make it clear that the main project is for me to set up ActionAid blogs. As a side effect, this provides the opportunity for me to produce my own content, over which Austcare/ActionAid has no editorial control.

I’m glad we’ve encountered the real-world impact of this issue while talking about a $3.50 garden gnome rather than, say, if I found an ActionAid worker drunk on duty. Or worse.

Now I won’t be carting a stupid lump of clay around Africa, so once I’m on the road Gnaomi will disappear from the screen. What happens after that remains to be seen. But whatever happens will happen because it was my honest, personal choice.

Project TOTO, this Grand Experiment, is truly a challenge, made more so because by definition it’s playing out in public.

ActionAid is engaging in the naked conversations of social media for the first time. There’s doubtless a sense of fear. Many of my readers and Twitter followers are influential media people — journalists, editors, TV and radio presenters, performers, academics, students. And of course ActionAid has its own stakeholders, some of whom may not be at all familiar with this new world.

But the Grand Experiment is also being followed by some of the more clueful social media practitioners and commentators. This is such a worthy cause they’ll probably offer plenty of feedback, advice and support along the way. ActionAid has a honeymoon period here. That’s going to be a wonderful conversation.

Finally, just so everyone’s clear, perhaps my posts need a disclaimer, eh?

[Disclaimer: Stilgherrian’s opinions are his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of ActionAid Australia or its international affiliates — or anyone else for that matter.]

28 Replies to “Look, about that damn topless gnome…”

  1. Breasts = sexual exploitation is a dangerous simplification. There’s an essay.

  2. A well written piece Stilg as usual it is your sharp wit and honesty that shines through.

  3. Odd to think that a trashy $3.50 topless garden gnome has now become one of the strongest signals of your independence as a writer and public figure and a marker of the trust relationship you have with your audience.

    I bet you didn’t see that one coming…

    (Well said, by the way. Wonderful post.)

  4. What you said, sir. ActionAid obviously not getting the irony and silliness of the whole thing. They do understand your political, social and sexual leanings, right?

  5. Granted, probably a bit too much robust debate over a clay Gnome and wider far more serious issues of women in appalling abusive situations, but we are just getting into social media. Time and place and all that, bear with us, I am sure the real news on women’s rights in Africa will emerge.

  6. Wow, well written. And I have to agree with your reasoning.

    My initial reaction to the gnome issue was to leave her behind or cover her up for fear of possibly causing offence (to the people, especially the women of Tanzania). I did a lot of thinking after reading the ongoing comments & arguments. Did a bit of light reading on Tanzania, ActionAid & other aid organisations working in Africa. Reflected on things I did (and why) to rebel against living in a nearby ultra conservative, Muslim country that often suppressed or ignored women and/or sexuality. In amongst the good, I saw events that were incredibly cruel and made me realize that equality (for women, gays or even other nationalities) did not yet exist. It is such a complex issue, it’s not black & white, it’s many shades of grey. I think the only right answer is to be true to oneself.

  7. Thanks for the continued comments and compliments. However, I’m still looking for someone willing to dismantle some of the less well-developed parts of my thesis. 😉 More tomorrow.

  8. The least well-developed part of your thesis, Sir, is a justification for why ‘Pong had to pay $3.50 for a garden gnome at a $2 shop. But otherwise brilliant. Thank you.

  9. If you were taking Gnaomi with you I might see issues with it, as the locals are unlikely to understand the strange goodness that is Stil. But broadcasting from your place is as you said your place, it’s part of who you are.

    Stil can’t be bought. 🙂

  10. “The state of Africa – Fifty years of Independence” and semi naked toy. Can’t understand the message – can’t help but feel awkward if not offended. I hope you respect the people at the remote ‘outpost’.

  11. Thank you again to everyone who’s complimented me about this post, here and elsewhere. This essay was difficult to write, since it went to the very core of my relationship with a client and to the heart of one of society’s most taboo-ridden subjects. That’s probably why it’s so long. Sorry, Duncan. 🙂

    But it wasn’t just that difficulty that delayed my response. I also wanted to let others have their say too. I feared that if I said too much too soon, I’d stifle discussion. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. However the evolving conversation certainly did help me clarify my own thoughts.

    That’s one of the strengths of the open, collaborative style that’s associated with this thing we call “social media” (ugh!).

    @Archie Law: We haven’t had a chance to talk about this yet, but I’m guessing it’s all caused… well, a confronting discussion within ActionAid. I remember well the complexities of Sending The Right Message when I worked with another highly political NGO, the AIDS Council of South Australia, both as a board member and a project officer. I look forward to having a yarn when we meet next.

    @mwandani: Can you tell us more about your reactions to this discussion? Since you’re writing about Tanzania in what I assume is Swahili (Kiswahili), I’m very interested to know what you think.

    I should mention that the photo at the top of the article isn’t intended to imply any connection at all between the toy and Africa — except that the toy and my planned trip to Africa collided to create this conversation.

    It’s a still image from the opening of my last video program. Each week the program begins with the gnome on the left of the screen. The camera then moves around to look at things which are relevant that week — on this occasion my passport, a booklet about health for travellers, and the book on Africa I’ve just started reading.

    The program is more or less aimed at an Australian audience — inasmuch as it has any planned target audience at all.

    But of course seeing the photograph here, out of its original context, does create a different connection, whether I intended to or not.

  12. Stilgherrian,

    it appears that mwandani is possibly an Australian based blogger so would (I think) falling into the “Australian audience” category .


    J. Nambiza Tungura


    “Nambiza Tungaraza is Adelaide-based Swahili blogger, radio presenter, community worker and an artist. In Radio he presents the AFROWORLD program at 101.5fm Radio Adelaide and coordinates/mentor young broadcasters. As an artist (painter and computer graphics designer), he has done exhibitions in Asia, Europe and in Australia. He still paints occasionally. Nambiza also works in various refugees-related projects.”

    BTW: There appears to be a surplus of naked gnomes in the inner Western Suburbs of Sydney (25 cases on order – Adelaide according to Google News) so it could be that Pong was short changed. It appears they have been distributed as prizes in a local Bingo competition and this has been the situation for at least two years.

  13. I’m not a wowser — but I’m sure my Grandma would be pretty happy with my use of the word.

    I don’t agree that banning cheerleaders will stop aggressive sexual behaviour by football players but I do believe that objectification of women (even cartoon or plaster gnomes!) does contribute to degrading attitudes towards women.

    Media and images DO influence our behaviour and levels of normalcy or acceptability. Have you ever walked out of the ‘Clockwork Orange’ and wanted to punch someone who bumped into you? I have.

    We need to be aware of how seemingly innocuous props can indirectly or subconsciously say that ‘It is OK’. And often it is not. Or, at least, should not be.

    That said — Stil, you have a good argument and it is very well articulated.

    I like that the discussion has had due weight. Those from ActionAid should not be dismayed — their arguments, while perhaps not as well crafted as yours, do remind us of the ongoing issues faced by women around the world. These issues should continue to be brought to the attention of all of us. Debate, after all, is critical in order to achieve change.

  14. @travelsanywhere: The images we see must affect our attitudes and behaviour, otherwise we wouldn’t have the advertising industry in its current form. Yesterday I re-read a write-up on the Kuleshov Effect and watched the original film, and was reminded that we’ve known about this stuff for a very long time.

    The comments from ActionAid’s staff were doubtless well intended. They were, quite naturally, looking at this through their own lens as an NGO with messages to deliver.

    While we’d previously agreed and briefly discussed editorial independence, though, I’m pretty sure that as they wrote those comments they didn’t realise that asking me to change the style and content of my material was, by definition, exerting editorial pressure. My immediate gut feeling was discomfort. When I saw that feeling being reinforced by other media professionals, I knew what my decision had to be. It just took a while to articulate that.

    There are lessons in there about choosing the time, place and tone of the conversation. ActionAid, as an organisation, is new at this stuff, and will need to develop a feel for what’s appropriate in different environments. That’s not a criticism, of course, since everyone stumbles when they’re learning.

    And this is just a stumble. No-one will really care long-term and, as I said, as an NGO doing stuff for the first time, ActionAid will enjoy a honeymoon period. I just hope that as an organisation they don’t over-analyse it — my own experience with NGOs is that that’s a risk.

    It’s also a shame this happened in the extremely busy last week before ActionAid’s launch, ‘cos it hasn’t left any time to chat about it. Oh well, the world’s not perfect etc.

  15. As I said in my original post I’m ambivalent about the topless gnome. I’m not personally offended by it, but I can see that some people might well be. I’m relieved that she’s not actually going to Africa, where I suspect the potential for offense might well be greater, although that’s a guess on my part.

    It’s hard to tell, but from the names and icons on the comments, it does seem as though the majority of commenters in support of retaining the topless gnome are male. I think that’s significant.

    I don’t buy into a simplistic bare breasts = rape argument, but I do believe that there is a causal link between the objectification of women and violence against women. And I’d make the point that when you’re on the side with the power it’s very difficult to see and acknowledge what it might be like to on the side without the power. It’s very easy to say ‘this isn’t offensive because I’m not offended by it’, when the reality is that you’re not the person the offense is aimed at. The case that illustrates that is the “Nigger Brown” football stadium furore. For the white people behind the naming of the stadium to say ‘It’s not offensive, it’s just the bloke’s nickname’ ignores the fact that a number of indigenous people were offended by a word that’s generally meant to be offensive, regardless of the context. For them, the decision to use that term stood as a statement of intent: ‘We don’t care whether you’re offended or not, we have the power and you don’t”.

    Since I know you personally, Stil, I know that you don’t have the attitudes towards women that the ownership of a topless female figurine might imply, but I suspect that displaying it may well misrepresent you in certain fora. I support your freedom to display it, but not necessarily your choice to do so.

    Also, as I said in my original post, the whole issue with bare breasted women is about choice, and that choice generally takes place in a culturally and legally proscribed context. As a theoretically emancipated Western woman, I theoretically have choices about my body and about displaying it. In practice those choices are quite limited. I can choose to bear my breasts on Bondi Beach or on certain kinds of social occasions (although if I chose to do so at my local shopping mall, I suspect I’d get arrested), but the reality is that I don’t because I would find the attention very unwelcome and the situation would feel, if not be, dangerous. To me that suggests that even in a society where the rhetoric suggests that I’m equal, the reality is otherwise.

    The garden gnome is indeed a representation, not a woman forced into pornographic display, but representations are after all symbols, and the interpretation of those symbols is at the discretion of the person doing the interpreting. Or to put it more bluntly: it’s your right to display the gnome, but don’t be surprised if some people are offended.

  16. @stilgherrian “I’m told there’s a shop in Surry Hills which still has plenty of the gnomes in stock. Some are topless, some have bikini tops.”

    Downunder Discounts Foveaux Street Surry Hills $4.95 for a bikini clad gnome with a face simliar to Gnaomi. They do not currently stock naked gnomes.

    I was merely passing on my way back from a presentation on the National Broadband Network given by a member of the Expert Panel who advised the government that this was/is the route to travel.

    And Yes. I purchased a gnome. I photographed them on display and it seemed approriate in the circumstances.

  17. I still don’t understand how Gnaomi can be said to be “objectifying women.”

    Does a regular garden gnome somehow “objectify” old men fishing? No? What if we give him a whimsical name, like “Gnorm.” No? Still not objectified? No.


  18. @Quatrefoil: Thank you, as always, for a well-reasoned comment. You make a vital point:

    I support your freedom to display [the gnome], but not necessarily your choice to do so.

    Similarly, I believe the Australian government was wrong to deny a visa to Holocaust denialist David Irving. No matter how abhorrent his views, he should always retain his basic human right to express them — and then have them shot down in flames under the relentless withering fire of logic and evidence.

    Your point about context is another good one.

    Yes, in Australia a topless women would doubtless be ejected from a shopping mall. In some malls, though, particularly those near a beach or serving a large urban gay population, a topless man would be fine — even though just 20 years ago that, too, would have been unacceptable.

    There’s plenty of Australians still alive who’d remember that a man in public without a hat was a man half undressed. Today, a hat is a rarity — though making a comeback.

    Only two years ago, ’Pong and I were nearly ejected from a suburban RSL club because his shirt exposed his upper arms. The elderly patrons must have very delicate sensibilities indeed. I wonder how they managed to survive the War years?

    Curiously enough, the photo of the bare-breasted African women on this post is captioned “Afar woman in the Senbete (Sembate) marketplace”. Naked breasts are apparently fine where she chooses to do a little shopping.

    As for the gender breakdown of commenters…

    I can’t determine everyone’s gender. And I can’t determine where everyone stands on the issue, because some people were making comments without necessarily revealing their personal views. Nevertheless, here’s my count of comments on both this and the original post, counting each individual only once.

    Calls to cover up etc: 2 male, 2 female, 1 unknown.
    Neutral or ambivalent: 2 male, 2 female.
    Opposed to calls to cover up: 10 male, 4 female.

    So, while it’s true to say that “most people calling for the gnome to stay were male”, that’s because most commenters were male to begin with.

    Breaking it down the other way, the majority favoured the gnome staying, no matter what their gender.

    Of course, the minuscule self-selected sample means that any numerical analysis has no actual validity whatsoever. Indeed, readers of my website are more likely to have views similar to my own anyway.

    @Toejam: I do like “Gnorm the Gnome”. A lot, in fact.

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