The Other SLUT

Last month, I enjoyed the privilege of volunteering for AIGA Seattle’s annual open studios event. One agency proffered a variety of activities for its participants in addition to trays of food and free-flowing wine and beer. Student designers were assigned the task of designing, in no more than five minutes, posters to promote use of the underused South Lake Union Transit electric streetcar, or SLUT, as the agency coined it, with their own poster encouraging, “This SLUT needs some action!”

More of their copy promoting reduced fares followed the theme as if written by and for prepubescent boys, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, heh-heh. I wondered who might be the art director with the unresolved Oedipus complex, this fear of and fascination for his mother, and out of touch with problems of contemporary society? Surely not the kindly gentleman sporting the curly, grey mullet? Please not the friendly fellows who fetched for me beer in a red plastic cup? Was the resulting concept the efforts of the same designer who attributed Garamond to Robert Slimbach at Adobe, but gave no mention whatsoever of Claude? Poor Claude. Five hundred years later, and no one remembers your name.

When did it get to be okay, I wondered, to objectify and demean women in the interest of promoting public transit? Why and to whom did this seem like a good idea? And finally, what would Barbara Kruger do with this concept?

Perhaps I am just old fashioned. The young women designers seemed to participate as readily as the young men, if not more so, manically, I might even say maniacally, churning out poster after poster to the hoots and hollering of their surrounding audience, in something of a design mosh pit, proving over and over again, as if proofs were still necessary, that good design does not happen in five minutes and has nothing whatsoever to do with readily available software, provided by the agency. The beer flowed freely. Appetizers whetted appetites. The temperature heated up as the evening wore on, and the crowd filled the room. Before one poster with copy that demanded, “Ride me!” and visuals that included an erect lozenge shape in violet atop two blue circles, one young man turned to another and commented, “It’s art, man, it’s pure art,” his eyes gleaming wetly.

When did art come to mean a little purple pill and blue balls?

Men can be sluts too, of course. In my recent readings I come across the artist Damien Hirst proclaiming somewhat proudly in 36-point type set for him by designer Jonathan Barnbrook, “I am a hypocrite and a slut and I will change my mind tomorrow.”

Yet somehow, men cannot claim the role of slut without affecting a tone of bragging of their sexual prowess. It is the subject claiming the role of object, which negates its very objectivity. Not the same appellation of slut demeaning to women and girls. Women designers may well participate in the objectification of other women, in their anxiety, perhaps, to prove they are just “one of the boys.” Who is this slut, then, if she is neither a woman nor a man, who is the SLUT who poses as object for the promotion of public transit?

I have not yet had occasion to ride Seattle Streetcar’s South Lake Union line, but I have walked the neighborhood to the immediate south of Lake Union. Passengers may ride the SLUT from downtown’s skyscrapers to a postage stamp-sized scrap of green grass popular with geese and crisscrossed by sidewalks covered in green goose goo, walk on past a family restaurant, and, just across a parking lot from a children’s playground, dine at a national chain known for its large-breasted food servers, its identity coyly referencing the eyes of a hoot owl.

A slut is a woman, but an Other woman, a lower class woman, the woman who serves your food, answers your telephone, or cleans your house, or a younger woman, a girl, not really a woman at all, but an object, dehumanized. In the language of difference, there is always an Other.

Meanwhile, upstairs from the mosh pit, a group of us could not help laughing as a member of the AIGA Seattle board struggled to find the men’s restroom. Marked by a red sign, the only spot of color in an otherwise neutral hallway, and located directly across from the bank of elevators, he nevertheless wandered to the end of the hall, around a short wall, and finally came to the door of the women’s restroom on the other side of a translucent screen, before returning, still in search of relief, in yet another real world example of the confluence of gender and graphic design. He struggled in finding the restroom because its sign provided neither text nor the universal icon of man, but a stylized version, the silhouette of a slouching suited male figure. For those old enough to remember, picture Miami Vice at the door of a public urinal. To my observation that women’s rooms are frequently located less conveniently than men’s rooms, another volunteer responded, “No! They’re always right together!”

“How much time have you actually spent looking for the women’s room?” I countered, thinking not of airports or shopping malls, but of restaurants and other public spaces, such as a building on the campus where I attended graduate school, with its women’s restrooms located on either the fifth floor or in the basement, but none on all the levels in between, and those options an improvement since the time of the building’s construction, when it was assumed faculty and students were all men.

“Not a lot,” he admitted, staring at me in horror, before sharing his judgment, “But that’s just stupid!”

I could not agree more.

In other, arguably related, news in November, the FBI cracked down on teenaged prostitution nationwide. Locally, police rescued twenty-three girls from Seattle’s streets and removed them to an undisclosed location, reminiscent of a similar story over a decade ago, when I first moved to Salt Lake City, and the sheriff there wanted to round up the prostitutes and warehouse them in a tent city, “solving” in one fell swoop two social problems of jail overcrowding and prostitution. I wondered then as I wonder now why we do not focus on the johns rather than the sluts and their pimps? Is it not a question of economics, of supply and demand? If we simply cut off the demand, won’t the supply automatically dry up? Why, then, do we criminalize the supply, revictimizing the victims of human trafficking and thereby perpetuating the system?

Finally, the fields of graphic design, law, and social welfare come together to combat the world’s oldest profession and the fastest growing criminal industry, last month releasing a poster designed for an enslaved audience, which seems to me like throwing a lot of money and both official and grassroots effort at a problem without solving it. I propose a poster contest, and a new approach to the problem. What if our poster was designed to attract johns? What would that look like? What if we designed a sexuality that did not include the objectification of women? What would that be? What if we provided girls with economic options beyond bartering their bodies in exchange for food or shelter, what if instead of saying no, we gave girls some yes options? Where is that poster, that Seattle, that world?

Anything less is just stupid.

While I wholeheartedly agree with Robynne Raye’s insistence, that there is a place of designing – reworded for even stronger emphasis – as in painting, as in writing, as in all human creative activity – that comes not from the cunt, not from the cock, not from our system of pleasure and reproduction, but from the gut, from the center, the place of digestion, I caution both women and men designers to question any design that demands the objectification of women leading to the victimization of girls. I am thinking of designing some bracelets: WWBKD?

What would Barbara Kruger do?

Though I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow.

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