Liners, vaginas and the wolf in sheep's undies
Who's saying what
On Monday morning, I received an email announcing “Carefree boldly uses the ‘V’ Word in an Australian TV Ad”. The message assured me that this was one of the first times, if not the first time, that vagina had been used in an Australian TVC.
The ad in question is for a new range of panty liners, and features a naked model discussing discharge with relative frankness. She informs us that discharge is your vagina’s way of self-cleaning (it’s true ladies, your pussy is like a cat), and that having discharge in between your periods is perfectly natural.
So far, pretty great. It’s wonderful to see women’s bodily processes normalised on primetime television. Vagina should not be a dirty word.
But, I decided that it wasn’t a topic I felt comfortable writing about.
Then, the controversy started. In New Zealand, the Advertising Standards Bureau received complaints as soon as the commercial aired. Not, apparently, because it featured a naked woman surrounded by flowers (a mainstay of the beauty industry for years), but because she was saying “the V-word” and discussing discharge.
The story was picked up by Jezebel, who praised it, and the Huffington Post, who like using the word vagina because it’s great for their SEO.
The advertisements appeared on popular Australian beauty website Beauty Heaven, who as I did above, praised the commercial’s clear language.
Women it seems, and market research proves, are sick of blue liquids flowing as a metaphor for the streams from their mysterious lady caves. They want to be spoken to like humans who inhabit bodies that are functional instead of ideologically loaded.
So, Carefree are using the word “Vagina” on television. I think it’s great that they’re using the word vagina on television, and some uptight idiots* complained because women’s bodies are still so socially charged that it can be construed as offensive to use the word vagina on television. So far, so simple as far as a write up goes, and that’s where Jezebel left it.
But here’s the thing, this advertisement, to me, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is telling us ‘vagina’ is not a dirty word, while simultaneously trying to sell us an anti-bacterial, absorbing product for daily use. The word? Not dirty? The thing itself? So oozing, goey and offensive that it has to be swaddled daily in a disinfected mini-nappy so it cannot terrify the world with its sickening output.
The ad tells us that the vagina’s self-clean functions are impressive; then tries to sell us a product to fix that very same phenomenon.
Don’t get me wrong, panty liners have their uses. They’re great for post-period spotting, if you have to wear the same pair of underpants for days on end or if you happen to be plumbed in a very certain way, but that is it. The advertisement uses words like “fresh” and “dry” to imply this new product for the times between that time of the month, is actually for all the time between that time of the month.
While panty liners are not inherently misogynistic per-se, implying that you ought to be wearing them every day is.
If discharge isn’t disgusting, why does it need to be captured in an absorbent pad and thrown in the rubbish? There is a reason why most women’s underwear features a cotton gusset, and that reason mostly renders liners redundant. Unless, of course, discharge is disgusting in which case, good heavens help you if you leave it to come out in the wash. Testicular sweating? Let underwear do its thing. But if something comes out of a vagina, you need a product for it.
I feared I was alone in this discomfort until my friend - who runs a successful underwear blog, so if anyone would want to protect panties from potential danger, it’s her – wrote this:
So, TV just told me that apparently now there's a panty liner for when you DON'T have your period, because even average day-to-day 'dampness' (their word, not mine) is gross when it comes to your vagina. Oh boy, and here I was all these years thinking 'wet' was an enjoyable and desirable adjective that went with 'pussy'. Feminine "hygiene" advertising, you're fucked. And you can take your insecurity-inspiring propaganda to hell with you.
In addition to promoting insecurity, there is medical evidence suggesting that panty liners are actually bad for your vagina, and can lead to recurring candida infections (in the spirit of fairness, this is still up for debate).
Carefree’s advertisement is pretending to have a frank, important conversation with us, but the message of the chat, if not the language, is still that our bodies are in some way problematic; that we need to buy things to fix the issue.
Advertisers have subverted women’s passions about their rights in an effort to sell them things for years. We’ve been told that cigarettes, lipstick, and even washing machines are tools of our liberation, and make no mistake this ad is exactly the same flavour of manipulation. Carefree say they are using the word ‘vagina’ in the spirit of opening up the conversation, but their real goal is to sell as many panty liners as possible and the way they’ll achieve that goal is by making us think of panty liners as a necessary cure for a problem that doesn’t exist in the first place. The use of up-front ‘medical’ language, only further bolsters the idea that discharge should be ‘dealt with’.
So thanks for the chat guys, but I think my vagina will be just fine without you.
*I realise this entire piece makes me sound paranoid, but speaking strictly hypothetically, wouldn’t calling in and complaining about your own advertisement be a really effective way of drawing a lot of attention to it?