Sunday 8 January 2012

Tampon Troubles

A lot of controversy has been generated this week by a New Zealand television advertisement for tampons. The brand, Libra, produced a 30-second commercial featuring a crossdresser and a genetic woman in the ladies' room. (It was also planned to be screened in Australia).

The ad features a "competition" between the crossdresser and the girl, as they attempt to outdo each other in an "anything you can do, I can do better" manner: applying lip gloss and mascara, and jiggling their boobs. Finally the girl "wins" by pulling out a small box of tampons, at which the crossdresser stalks out in an apparent huff. The closing line of the commercial is "Libra gets girls".

Cherise Witehira, President of Agender New Zealand, said the ad was "blatantly transphobic" and called for a public apology and the ad to be withdrawn. Although no apology has been issued, the ad has been taken off the air after only a couple of screenings. Thankfully we have YouTube, where we can all watch it as often as we like.

In her interview with TVNZ, Ms Witehira claimed that members of the public, who are not familiar with different categories of transgendered people, would be confused about whether the crossdresser in the ad was a drag queen or a transsexual.

However, the main point of contention seems to be that the ad is claiming that transgendered women are not "real" women, because they don't menstruate. Some very powerful comments to this effect have been left on Libra's Facebook page and in other public fora.

In addition, some commentators are pointing out the ad is just in poor taste. It's not offensive, it's just not that funny.

In fairness, not everyone hates the ad. There are some positive comments in response to the NZ Herald's article about it. Serena writes: The trans community is not speaking for me here. (I'm a 10 years post-operative transwoman). The character is clearly a drag queen, the advert is gentle and funny, and a whole lot of people need to lighten up, they are NOT helping the trans community in any way be being up in arms about nothing. How can people be "disgusted and offended" by this? next they'll get upset by knicker and bra adverts. I'd love to be able to disown the lot of them.

So what do I think about this?

First, one sure fire way to stimulate a great deal of public interest in something is to protest about it. By protesting so strongly, Cherise Witehira has undoubtedly scored an own goal: she has given the ad substantially more publicity than it would otherwise have generated. (It would probably have been screened late at night a dozen or so times, before being eventually dropped).

Second, I deeply sympathise with the plight of transsexual people of all kinds. It's an unspeakably painful experience to go through. Every one of them I have ever met has made enormous sacrifices to be true to themselves: their job, their friends, their marriage. So it's quite understandable that this sort of ad presses an especially tender button with some transsexual people: What do you mean I'm not a real woman?

Third, from an ordinary viewer's perspective, the ad is quite funny, though not a side-splitter. I find ads for feminine sanitary products to be, in general, quite unstimulating. Proving how many gallons of blue water a sanitary pad can absorb is not especially entertaining. I can see how the ad agency was looking for a new angle with a bit of humour thrown in, and I applaud this effort.

And Libra have always tried to inject a bit of humour into their advertising. Take a look at this one, which I think is hilarious, and provoked no complaint at all:

Fourth, it's not quite clear to me what "category" of trans person the ad is supposed to be depicting. It seems the transsexuals are quite clear that they don't identify with the person in the ad, who is described as a "drag queen" in some circles. Is she a drag queen? Or just a glamorous transvestite? It doesn't matter! I confess to being a "lumper" rather than a "splitter", in this regard; which is to say that, as a man who loves to dress as a woman, for me the motivation is less important than the behaviour. Another way to put it is to say that I think there is more than unites us than divides us, and insisting on somewhat arbitrary categorisations is unhelpful. In any case, I wish I could look as good as that!

Finally, from a crossdresser's viewpoint, the ad is quite cool. A person (who is not at first glance a crossdresser) walks into a ladies' room. At second glance, we realise there is something a little different about her (she looks great, IMHO), and we "read" her. So does the girl she is standing beside. Nobody runs screaming. Nobody calls the police. Nobody, in fact, thinks that this is a particularly inappropriate thing for her to be doing. In fact, the crossdresser and the girl begin to size each other up, and compete with each other, on the same terms. The only way in which the girl can "win" this competition is by changing the terms: you look as good as me, you dress as well as me, you can apply as many cosmetics as me, but I've got a uterus and you don't. (This is actually a cheap shot, which makes the girl (not the crossdresser) look bad, and is one reason why the ad doesn't succeed: the tampon wins, but does not win without (just a little) cruelty).

But stepping aside from this parting shot, the scenario of the ad is quite positive. It implies that crossdressers can just go out to bars like everyone else, and adopt the role and persona of women without anyone being upset by it. And the very premise of the ad is that it's acceptable for crossdressers to behave in this way. Surely some encouragement can be taken from that?


  1. I would think that this was a cross-dresser. I would figure that A drag-queen would rather use the men's room. This cross-dresser is rather nice looking, but does have some of the exaggerated features that some cross-dressers exhibit, like the nails and makeup. Love the strapless dress, nice arms and shoulders. But I am encouraged that she is actually in a bathroom considering that when I am dressed, I don't feel like I could use either. Thank goodness for the family bathrooms at the mall.
    Anyway, I liked the commercial. I do think that it should be re-made as a you-tube gag video where the cross-dresser does not concede in the end, but rather pulls out and hands to the woman a bottle of Mydol! Victory!

    1. Thanks for posting Darien. Would a drag queen use the men's room? I'm not so sure. Still, I love your new ending! I had to Google Midol, but it seems to be an analgesic used for period pain. Great idea!


    2. The ad is hilarious and the girl most likely would be perceived as a draq Queen. Most crossdressers can't pull off that good of a look. And no, DQs don't use the mens rooms. Sad to see that portions of the LGBT community overreact once again and start the name calling. Hugs...Tasi