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.]

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