If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Clown Shoes: Provocation Was the Goal

There's a brewery in Massachusetts called Clown Shoes. A couple weeks ago, I spied them at a beer shop in Portland, ME and raised an eyebrow at the risque, look-at-me-labels. Those labels created a firestorm last week in a discussion on BeerAdvocate--followed by discussions across the beer-o-sphere. The question: are the labels sexist/offensive? The responses ranged across the board, with the usual analysis. Even the female artist weighed in with support for the non-sexist view. (Sample argument: "A woman who is comfortable in her own skin and likes how she looks is a sexy woman. Sexy is not sexist. In fact, sexist is rarely sexy.")

This controversy was, of course, the goal of the labels. They're designed to provoke. Pity the poor brewery that slaps self-consciously outrageous labels on its bottles and receives no attention. This isn't even a close call. If anyone could claim there was some gray area in the question, a glance at the text on the labels dispels it:
  • On Tramp Stamp: "Like a stamp on a tramp, this is about not so subtle seduction."
  • On Lubrication: "Lube? Hey, get your mind out of the gutter!"
It's possible to take this discussion in a postmodern, third-wave-feminism direction and pose various questions about the nature of sexuality and agency. I absolutely guarantee that wasn't the intention of Clown Shoes. They knew there was a line dividing sexist and sexy and they danced across it with smirking delight, and in case anyone missed this act of transgression, they made the point clear in their text. I have no idea whether CEO Gregg Berman ("the labels were meant to be modern, adventurous, and fun. Maybe even provocative.") is sexist, but I do know he used these labels to draw attention--and sales--to his beer. Mission accomplished.

The question isn't whether Clown Shoes' labels are sexist; the question is, as a consumer, how do you feel about the fact that they are?

30 comments:

Daniel Warner said...

"A woman who is comfortable in her own skin and likes how she looks is a sexy woman. Sexy is not sexist. In fact, sexist is rarely sexy."

This is dumber than hell and has absolutely nothing to do with the undeniably sexist labels she cooked up. You missed the even dumber part:

"For instance, a Tramp Stamp is a tattoo placed on the lower back of a woman to emphasize her sexuality. "

The fact is that this was commissioned art, purchased and paid for by a (male-run) corporation for a (male-dominated) market. It isn't self expression essentially by definition.

The theoretical question here is: can someone from an under-privileged group actually reflect the ideology of the privileged one? The answer to that is an obvious "yes, duh." The basic mode of ideology generally is to absorb and co-opt counter-narratives, and for some reason postmodern theorists have ignored the obvious for many, many years. And so third-wave feminism inevitably gave rise to Girls Gone Wild.

Daniel Warner said...

Here's another good one: Foothills Brewing's Sexual Chocolate

http://thefullpint.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/foothills-sexual-chocolate.jpg

Shawn said...

I wouldn't buy any beer which the brewery thought the only way to sell it is to use sexual/sexist advertising. If the beer were good, they could sell it with more mainstream advertising. it reminds me of the Bikini Coffee Cart here in PDX. If you're coffee is so bad you need to sell it with women clad in bikinis, then I don't want to taste it.

Anonymous said...

Depends on the quality of the beer. If the beer's great, the lables are risque. If it blows, they're in abominable poor taste. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Isn't this just more proof that bad breweries sell packaging; good breweries sell beer. Putting aside the 'sexism' arguments, if the bottle isn't even in good taste, why should we think the beer would? Maybe they could run some tv commercials showing how many barely-clad attractive women will faun over you if you drink the beer.

Jeff Alworth said...

I should probably have mentioned that I'm not personally offended by the art. Nor do I think we should strive for a world where no label art offends anyone. As "offensive" goes, this is pretty small beer.

On the other hand, I agree with Daniel that postmodernism has twisted some brains into pretzels such that the obvious, intended message becomes incidental to possible, meta messages of co-option and power reversals and so on. I would ascribe to these labels a very pre-modern intention.

Little Richie said...

I am not even sure Clown Shoes is really a brewery. There's a cloak of secrecy around this outfit. I'm now guessing, based on a quick online search, but I think this is a total contract for hire setup run by some ex-wholesale beer marketers. Which makes the wink-wink bro-dudes bottle labels simply a marketing ploy. But, the worst sin of Clown Shoes, their beer is boring. But thats just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Re: Lubrication - Artists have been sneaking dongs into their pictures for millenia. The fact that they got these approved by the government, which has a history of rejecting labels for inane reasons, I say more power to them.

Anonymous said...

Whether the label is sexist or not is not really the issue here. It's just a symptom of an ever-increasing problem in today's world of beer.

A certain part of the beer community has an obsession about the biggest and most extreme out there beer they can find. These people continue to look down their hop inflicted noses at good balanced beer as if it were swamp water. They live their life bragging about the last hop monster or double flipple, tripple, quad geared beer that they have found and drunk.

The problem is that there are breweries out there who are setting out to target these people with crazy beers with crazy names, or crazy marketing.

There is only so much you can do to push the envelope in brewing "stunt beers" before what you produce is just plainly not beer anymore, so these breweries / marketers decide that the next point of attack is to market these beers with "stunt marketing". (intro Clown Shoes et al) Then there are those that combine stunt beer and stunt marketing together (high alcohol barley extract served in a corpse anyone?).

So labels like these and breweries like these feed off the herd mentality that surrounds the sanctum of the so called beer geek world.

It's time that these so called beer fans realise they have lost their way, that they are being taken for a ride, and return to loving good balanced beer or they take their extreme habits elsewhere and start jumping out of planes or riding bikes down the side of high rise buildings.

When too many jackasses demand jackass beers, you end up with jackass products ...

Greg said...

As someone who pays a lot of attention to craft beer labels, I really disagree with your statement that they are sexist, just because women are on them.

For one thing, the women depicted are realistic, not cartoonish barbies made entirely of cleavage that adorn so many other labels (by the way, where was the outrage for the dozens of those?). For another, I think there's far too much of throwing around "sexist" and "racist" like the only meaning they have is "might offend someone."

Sexism is a belief that one gender is superior to others. It is not the act of depicting of one person in a manner someone may not like. To say that the labels are sexist is to say that they are advancing some agenda of women being inferior to men.

I understand how that not everyone likes the labels, which were around for a while before this controversy. And maybe there's a case that they were designed to be attention-grabbing and controversial. But to say "they knew there was a line dividing sexist and sexy and they danced across it with smirking delight" when in fact everyone involved in the creative process has insisted otherwise seems beyond unfair.

kevin said...

@Greg

"Sexism is a belief that one gender is superior to others. It is not the act of depicting of one person in a manner someone may not like. To say that the labels are sexist is to say that they are advancing some agenda of women being inferior to men."

You understand what the word "tramp" means, right?
It's a derogatory term used to denote certain women as inferior for engaging in behavior that's glorified when men do it.

Also, if you think there hasn't been any objections to "cartoonish barbies made entirely of cleavage", you haven't been paying attention.

Jeff Alworth said...

As someone who pays a lot of attention to craft beer labels, I really disagree with your statement that they are sexist, just because women are on them.

Greg, I made no such statement. Label art is a communication, and so we have to look at the context to see what's being communicated. Obviously, putting women on a label isn't itself a sexist act. But Clown Shoes' communication is pretty clear when you include the beer names and side text. We don't need to get into a lot of deep discussion to recognize that this fits the dictionary definition of sexism (not one based on superiority, but "behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex" ~Webster's)--which is the clear, intentional communication of these labels.

olllllo said...

Clown Shoes is not alone in these types of marketing approaches although I think that their strategy is clear and transparent. The breweries that I've cited in my blog post Beer, Gender and the Tender Trap of Bikini Marketing, seem to have fallen into the lazy trap that is the entire history BMC advertising.

Matt said...

The reason this is such a firestorm isn't the label at all but the act of an employee of BA using her influence to bash a brewer. If the real topic at hand was really about offensive labels then we would be including all the offensive labels out there instead of just CS. These labels have existed for a while now and the news trucks didn't roll when they hit the shelves. They only rolled local news trucks when the BA community got enraged at the moderator who tried to bully down a local brewer. Had this been posted by anyone else it would have lasted a few posts then quickly died.

Do we really think the only reason CS is doing this with the labels is to generate revenue? Who is seriously going to continue to drink beer they don't like just because of the label? You might get someone to buy it once because they found it amusing. To get a repeat purchase you have to make something people like.

Greg said...

@Kevin
Of course I'm familiar with what "tramp" means, just as I'm familiar with what the term "kaffir" means, but do not feel specific limes are racist. Sometimes terms, when incorporated into other terms, change meaning. "Tramp stamp" is a very well-accepted slang term for a very specific type of tattoo, and while there's a great argument to be had about classiness of that use, I don't see the argument about sexism.

@olllllo That was a good post, but I really see this as quite different from the lazy "let's show boobs" mentality in a lot of beer marketing.

@Jeff
"behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex" ... What types of gender social roles are these labels fostering? Women as angels? Women as people who get tattoos? The female figures on these labels don't seem in particularly degrading positions to me (one is based on a blacksploitation figure made into an angel). Is any depiction of any female form by definition reinforcing a stereotype? Why can't these just be what they claim to be (i.e. amusing pictures of a tattoo and an angel)?

I absolutely understand that not everyone wants to see realistically rendered female forms on their beer bottles. But that's a long sight from fostering stereotypes. I'm afraid I still don't see sexism, even by that definition.

Matt said...

Here's a thought. If you are upset by the label, explain how it should be changed to not upset you. I'm curious if it's a matter of changing the skin tone of the model, adding more clothes, changing the pose, or entirely removing any women from labels. I feel like I've become dull to something I should find offensive because I cannot see these labels being largely worse than many others out there and THAT makes me wonder why these are being singled out.

Jeff Alworth said...

Matt, as I noted earlier, I'm not offended about the labels. You don't have to be offended to, you know, recognize them for what they are.

Greg, while many people chafe at the whole concept of sexism, I'm not one of them. Objectifying any group based on a stereotype earns an "ism," and objectifying women as sex objects earns the "sexism" tag. If you accept the concept at all, you have to accept that any beer that combines the name "Stamp Tramp," the visual of a female body part, and the text "this is about not so subtle seduction" earns the designation. It's really not controversial.

Matt said...

I'm honestly curious, if "objectifying women as sex objects earns the sexism tag" then where is the line for more traditional forms of artwork? Is it sexism to do something similar in a painting or photo or even a fashion show? Perhaps I'm naive but I don't see where the line is when it comes to being OK to show a sexy woman and having it be sexism. That's why I'm curious if we should just make the rule of no scantly clad women on labels no matter what color they are. Based on the definition, would the Brawny guy on the paper towels also be sexism as it appears to do the same thing yet with masculinity in mind?

olllllo said...

@greg

Yes, I blogged about the lazy and perhaps unwitting. I will perhaps never have the opportunity to have Clown Shoes beer nor Do I have anything to gain or lose with BA et al.

Both seem to have reputations that proceed them on things that have little to do with beer.

One other minor point, you can't ask me to consider someone a CEO with a blog like this: http://www.clownshoesbeer.com/blog/

Matt said...

@olllllo

I've actually heard good things about the quality of the CS product. I look forward to trying it. Last I checked I think most of their stuff rated well.

Regarding the blog, I agree it's ugly but what do you expect of the CEO of a brewery? Very few of the ones I've met are corporate types. Sam at Dogfish drove me up a wall with his TV show and came across as a smug son of gun. I can't stand him but his beer is good. Jim Koch used make me nuts with his TV and radio commercials. His mannerism of speaking or so overly nerd like that I want him to shut up. But his product is good, sometimes extremely. If you had the chance seems like a shame to not even give it a try.

Greg said...

Just wanted to point out that I too have never had Clown Shoes beer, met Gregg Berman, or really know much about it other than the artist, Stacey George, who I think is talented but have never interacted with beyond a couple emails. Like Matt, I've heard good things, but like olllllo and Jeff say, they certainly seem willing to cross professional boundaries. Still, this is craft beer, and there aren't a ton of super-professional leaders of breweries.

@Jeff, I think I see where you're going, but I'm interested to hear how you respond to Matt's question. Is Titian's work sexist? Picasso's? Jeff Koons'? Judy Chicago's? Is it possible to celebrate sexuality without being sexist, according to your view?

Jeff Alworth said...

Sorry, I sort of lost sight of this post. Greg and Matt, while there are gray areas in the depiction of women, there are also lots of areas in nice monochromatic black and white. Context usually tells you what you need to know.

The female body is not innately sexualized. It's the way the body is presented that tells you the intent of the artist (or ad agency or beer company). Even when a body is sexualized, it's not necessarily objectified. The reason sexualized, objectified presentations of women offends people is because it reduces them to a single function. It robs them of humanity and personhood, often with profound effects.

I didn't invent the concept for this post. It has a vast body of literature behind it. Even the wikipedia page documents it pretty well and offers source material for further reading. Suffice it to say that according to this large body of inquiry, the Clown Shoes labels would qualify as sexist.

Daniel Warner said...

@Matt

"Based on the definition, would the Brawny guy on the paper towels also be sexism as it appears to do the same thing yet with masculinity in mind?"

This is a classic anti-feminist debate tactic, and it has a pat-answer: "Patriarchy hurts men too."

The simple answer is that yes, objectifying gender roles and sexuality has a negative effect on everyone. Turning these objects into commodities has an even more negative effect on everyone. Pointing out how objectification hurts men is like pointing out that warfare also hurts the aggressors.

Despite this, women suffer from this objectification and commodification disproportionately more than men. This is indisputably true and the rather extreme reaction to it has the same tone of regressive evolution denialism.

Matt said...

I'm afraid this may be beyond my intellect to grasp. Based on what I'm reading the only logical conclusion would be to boycott the use of both male and female models in any kind of advertising as methods to appear to a target market. On the surface this seems easy to understand why when you consider the bikini girl attracting the male market, but what about the movie star used to attract the female market to cosmetics or clothing? If you keep using this line of logic about objectification then anything that is appealing because of physical appear is "wrong" even if the consumer wants it to enhance their physical appeal.

I can't really object to something that isn't based in some form of truth and in this case there is a lot of biology and psychology behind the way we act. Men are attracted visually while women are attracted to providers. This drives men to be more of an alpha male in their personal lives and it drives women to show more interest in things like cosmetics or clothing.
So what happens when a woman becomes CEO or a large company? We support her of course. But what if she also has a love for clothing, cosmetics or jewelry? Is she then doing a disservice to her sex by falling back to a stereotype? What about the stay at home dad who we also support? Do we criticize him for his love of all kinds of golf equipment that he seeks out in his quest to win a local club tournament? Is he week for feeding that male stereotypical need to dominate or be an alpha?

Until the day comes we evolve to some futuristic unisex aliens who all look the same I'm not so sure it's really that wrong to acknowledge our differences. Exploiting them is one thing but I really don't equate a bikini clad woman on a label with the message that all women should be barefoot and pregnant. Likewise I don't view Nike commercials as stereotyping that real men must win to prove their potency.

It's wrong to generalize about a group of people but it seems dishonest to try and ignore traits these groups have or share. When something doesn't hurt others, I don't see the gain in denying something about yourself just because it falls into an old stereotype. Should I fall for an ad that targets my desire to enhance my sports performance just because it's just feeding that alpha male stereotype? Even if I enjoy the sports I play and it makes me a more balanced human? I should shun the company that tries to exploit my desire to do better even though that is exactly what I'd really like to do?

Again, maybe I'm just not bright enough for the debate.

Daniel Warner said...

@Matt, here's where you go wrong

"I can't really object to something that isn't based in some form of truth and in this case there is a lot of biology and psychology behind the way we act. Men are attracted visually while women are attracted to providers. This drives men to be more of an alpha male in their personal lives and it drives women to show more interest in things like cosmetics or clothing. "

This is what's called the "naturalistic fallacy," and it's a logical fallacy even when you are talking about things that are objectively true about primitive human psychology (of which we know next to zero) and the effect of genetics on social preference (even less than that). Almost all of these behaviors are *SOCIAL*, not biological, especially given the complete lack of worldwide support for it.

Just making a comment like that is sexist, because it reinforces gender roles that have been established by society. In western society, boys don't cry, because men are supposed to be tough. Yet feudal samurai literature is packed with male-on-male "bromance" if you will, and long, weepy passages about fellow warriors being killed. The idea that we are being driven by some innate "alpha" desires is not provable in any way.

There's another part to the naturalistic fallacy, though, and that's even more disingenuous. After you've established these roles exist "naturally", that these "natural" behaviors are the way we "ought" to act. Even IF men are pre-programmed to be "alpha" like in a wolf pack (again, no evidence of that), there's nothing to say that this is the way we ought to organize a modern society. Rape is rampant in the animal world. Is that something that should be accepted and encouraged as "natural" as well?

Daniel Warner said...

And again, that's another standard anti-feminist debate tactic meant to disrupt discussions (which it has). The point is that these labels are sexist because they reduce women to objects and worse, commodities for sale.

There is no way the phrase "tramp stamp" can be a celebration of sexuality, because it implies the hypocritical demand for sex concomitant with social pressure against it. Summed up, it's "slut shaming." Slut shaming is by definition sexist as hell. I don't care if it is a woman doing it, mercenary artist or not.

Matt said...

For naturalistic fallacy I found this "The term is sometimes used loosely to describe any arguments that claim to draw ethical conclusions from natural facts." I'm not sure I agree with this. I don't think it's an ethical discussion to say that men are more visually stimulated than women. I also don't think it's unethical to say there is some base need in many women to seek men who are providers. I did try to do some searches in Google for studies on it but you'd be surprised (or not) what comes up when you search on this type of thing.

To me it sounds like your argument is that just because ethically we shouldn't act differently based on our gender, that means that we have no reason to act that way. If true then what are all the doctors in psychology doing? Again, if beings are different because of gender then I really see no reason to treat them as the same.

I am sorry I didn't find any information to back up my claims on biology and psychology but I really assumed this is commonly accepted knowledge. It's almost like saying that testosterone and estrogen are identical when I think everyone knows they are not and they affect humans differently. To ignore that men and women act a differently just because ethically we should view them differently seems more than wrong to me.

Also I can't make the jump of a bikini girl on a label meaning that we see all women objects. Anymore than the female movie star who markets cosmetics. Or the male athlete of any race marketing golf clubs. In any of those cases I don't personally think to myself the person doing that marketing is telling me that they are only good for one thing. My brain just can't make that jump.

If you do believe that point then the only solution I can see is to totally eliminate all men and women from all marketing. Michael Jordan would have never made Nike the giant they are now. I can't see of any marketing use of a human that couldn't be reduced to some kind of object if you didn't really want to try hard. It's kind of like the conspiracy theory guy who states the lack of evidence is evidence of a cover up. If you really want to reduce something to being offensive you can do it eventually but it seems to be unrealistic the more you have to stretch and deny.

An attractive woman on a beer bottle? Mostly men drink beer. Men are visually drawn to attractive women. This brings their eyes to the label. This increases the chances of a first time sale over the company that just writes "beer" in earth tones on their label. I just don't see it being more than that. But again, I'm not that bright.

Jeff Alworth said...

Also I can't make the jump of a bikini girl on a label meaning that we see all women objects.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a perfect illustration of the problem. All the "isms" thrive because the person with power in the relationship assumes everyone enjoys the same level of agency.

"Mostly men drink beer. Men are visually drawn to attractive women. This brings their eyes to the label."

Yup. And you're trapped in a view where you only (not mostly) see the issue through the lens of the male eye.

Matt said...

I may see it only through a male eye but that's only because it's all I have. I can try to have empathy for women (or another group I'm not a member of) but the reality is I can't fully understand the plight of others as well as they can. So do I give up? No, of course not. But I do listen to others and I dare say that many women would feel the same way in that sometimes it's just nice to see an attractive male or female model on an advertisement.

The root of all this seems to implicate that nearly all forms of targeted marketing are in some way evil. It sounds like any company who searches for a target market is going to fall into this trap because the first thing they will ask is "how can we best reach that market"? Once that question is asked they have suffered some sort of -ism. Probably the most confusing marketing would be Victoria's Secret. Their main target is women but their tactics are typical for men. My head hurts just trying to sort that one out.

Beside the idea that Nike was racist for using Jordan, it also seems to me that this way of thinking makes Norman Rockwell a sexist. What used to be the epitome of wholesome and innocent is technically a sexist. I'm not sure I can relate to that.

Anonymous said...

Tramp Stamp is obviously sexist and hard to defend. Brawny guy has all his clothes on.

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