OP-ED: The Transphobic Libra Tampon Ad And Subjectivity

Excuse the awful unintentional pun, but all this debate over the controversial Libra Tampon ad and the accusations of transphobia got me thinking about the movie No Strings Attached.

I thought that movie was terrible. I watched it on a Sunday when I was pretty much invulnerable to standards (i.e. a little hungover and horizontal), so it should have been an enjoyable and passive viewing experience. Instead, I found the entire thing utterly painful. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman are very bad in it, and every female character is formed from unoriginal and depressing chick cliches: the beautiful airhead; the emotionally unavailable commitment-phobe; the relationship-desperate funny one…

It surprised me then, that quite a few friends – both guys and girls – who have great taste in movies actually enjoyed it.

This new perspective on No Strings had me reconsidering my original position. Was I being too harsh? Is Ashton Kutcher actually kind of charming? I do know a few beautiful airheads…

The fact is, entertainment and all media is subjective. One person’s funny is another person’s disgusting (e.g. Jackass). One person’s offensive is someone else’s work of art (e.g. T Pain). Heck, one person’s glamorous fur coat is another person’s murdered animal corpse. Everybody reads into these things differently in accordance with our personal experiences, beliefs, religion, education and the way we see the world.

On Wednesday I wrote about the Libra ad in question, and said that I see no malice toward transgenders or intentional transphobic messages.

Here it is:

In the article I was expressing my personal opinion which is not necessarily the opinion shared by the rest of the people working at Pedestrian. (Perhaps I should have made that more clear.) Either way, that opinion is based on my own interpretation of the ad – something that many of you don’t agree with, which is excellent. The reason we have a comment section and a Facebook page is because we want our readers to have their say and have a voice – otherwise what’s the point?

Whether or not you deem the ad transphobic, I think there are two things we can all agree on: opinion is subjective and so too is interpretation.

I’m going to reiterate mine:
Firstly, I do not think think it’s a good commercial and I don’t think it really does much to sell the product; but I don’t think it’s evil either, and I don’t perceive that it was created as an attack on the trasngender community.

I think we can all agree on the fact that whether you’re a man, woman, transsexual, drag queen, homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, alien life form, Michael Jackson or hermaphrodite, the only people who are going to use or purchase tampons are human beings that menstruate. The advertising agency behind the ad conceived it specifically for that demographic and, unfortunately, the chose the tagline “Libra Gets Girls” which, in hindsight, isn’t a great one and can be interpreted as non-inclusive.

The initial complaints by Agender NZ construed this phrase as an attack on the transgender community because it infers you are not a “real” woman if you don’t menstruate. As a person with Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) I don’t get my period, but I don’t consider the message of the ad an attack on me. I don’t take that to mean I’m less of a woman than someone with a super heavy flow. I understand that, whether successful or not, the ad was meant to be lighthearted and funny – and was not accusing my uterus of being inferior.

While we’re on the subject of my periods (now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write in a public forum..), I also stand by what I wrote on Wednesday: menstruating is the pits.

No matter how many times I read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, I just don’t think of it as an honour or beautiful sign of my womanhood or whatever. For me it’s agonising pain and fears about fertility; and while I’m not alone in my non pro-period stance, I certainly do not speak for all women who do menstruate.

One commenter, Alexa Malone, wrote: “The fuck?? I love getting my period, please don’t speak for all the other females who are proud of the fact that their reproductive organs function..”

I want to apologise to Alexa and any of my fellow menstruators who were upset by my negative comments. I’m sorry. Again: interpretation and opinion is entirely subjective, even when it comes to bodily fluids.

In addition to the spokesperson from Agender NZ, many transwomen have added their own differing takes on the commercial.

In an insightful op-ed for Huffington Post Valerie Keefe wrote: “First of all, the ad is based on a lazy premise, that menstruation is what makes a woman. There are plenty of cis women who can’t menstruate, and some trans women who can. Secondly, the ad is punching down, taking a marginalized group and making fun of them via an externally applied prejudice. And what’s worse, I think, is what it says not about trans women but about all women, cis or trans.”

Keefe suggests an improved alternative ending to the commercial: “the cis woman pulls out a Libra tampon, at which point the trans woman looks on, shrugs, makes a gesture with her fingers (which are larger than the tampon), turns, and walks out; tagline: “Libra: Some Girls Get Us.”

Gabby Newton posted her thoughts on the Libra facebook page, writing: “As a transgender woman i watched the advert and i didnt see it as transphobic, it maybe was a little denigratory but it did highlight the competitveness of some trans people with genetic females and each other, but with ‘trans’ being so culturally and socio-economically diverse as a community then there will always be hypersensitivity.

“And the ad also brought to the forefront the fact that people do take trans people less seriously for wearing excessive makeup. etc. im a trans woman and im not offended by the ad whatsoever……….in fact i liked it because it didnt portray trans people as the ‘toilet lurker’ stereotypical image. myself………………i tore myself apart inside with feelings of being too ugly to transition and knowing that i could never be a ‘complete’ female and bear children and hence i found comfort in identifying as ‘third gender’ i sometimes feel trans people can be overly sensitive over issues like these but i also understand why.”

I think Gabby’s point about sensitivity is an interesting one. There’s a growing social movement and obsession toward absolute political correctness and a phobia of offending anyone. Every day shit happens in the media, entertainment and day to day life that is going to offend someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be shut down after someone complains. For example, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) were offended by an Adshel advertisement promoting safe gay sex. The ACL complained and Adshel subsequently pulled the ad.

Actions by a group like ACL which promotes the belief that LGBT individuals’ basic human right to have sex is wrong IS something worthy of protest and anger. That is a message that NEEDS to be pulled down. The Libra ad to me is about tampons and there’s no vicious ideology attached to it. It’s an awkward ad that isn’t effective in selling the product, but I don’t think it sends a message of transphobia – not intentionally.

In a statement Libra said: Libra regrets any offence taken to our recent tampon advertisement. It was never intended to upset or offend anyone.

The Melbourne female impersonator Sandee Crack who plays the drag queen character also said during his experience with Libra special attention was paid attention to avoid causing offence. He told the Star Observer that conscious decisions were made during the advertisement’s shoot to keep his underarm hair and a strapless dress was chosen to accentuate his broad shoulders.

Crack said, “I was presented with the Libra commercial and saw it as a great opportunity to participate in a positive step towards acceptance for drag queens and gay men among the wider community. Libra [was] both sensitive, professional and accepting of my needs as a drag queen and as a gay man throughout the production process. I never felt for one moment that I would be depicted as a trans woman, nor do I believe that I have been.”

In response to this, many people have commented on whether or not the ‘drag queen vs trans woman’ argument is relevant at all.

A commenter on Pedestrian’s facebook page, Aisling Kelly, said: “Whether this depicts a drag queen or a trans woman is irrelevant. The ad portrays a group of society as being inherently “less than” for not conforming to gender norms. Is it really so difficult to understand why people are upset? I don’t think the average homo/trans/drag/anyoneslightlydifferentphobe is going to differentiate between a drag queen and a trans woman.”

Alternatively, openly gay male Christopher Parson made the comment: “The wig, the glitter shadow… she’s OBVIOUSLY a drag queen. Isn’t that a transfaux pas in itself?”

Another commenter, Christine, responded to Sandee’s comments on the SameSame website from another perspective: “I’m a trans woman, I started on hormones just over two months ago and don’t have money to get electrolysis or surgeries or vocal coaching all of which are NOT covered by my insurance. I’m 6’5″. I appear less like a woman than Sandee. In fact, it’s unlikely that anything I do is going to change that. Ever.”

“So Sandee, the fact that you didn’t try to hide that you were a man only makes it MORE apparent that you aren’t a genetic woman. Most people that look like this in an ordinary women’s restroom are going to be trans-women, not drag queens.”

Having taken in so many different responses and interpretations to the commercial has made me less sure about my stance – in the same way I tend to falter on my initial perspective of romantic comedies. I think we’re all malleable enough that when we listen to the sincere opinions of others, it’s impossible to walk away without learning a little or taking something valuable on board.

Promoting intolerance of any gender identity is absolutely unacceptable, and I still don’t think the Libra ad did that. Transpeople aren’t the butt of Libra’s bad joke.

On her blog Bloody Humour, Flow wrote: “i’m going to talk about the last lot, since i’m post operative transsexual. i had my boy bits consigned to history a long time ago and now live as a (trans) woman. i’m out and proud (since otherwise i’d be hiding in a cupboard and paranoid) in a small-town community.

“i’m not offended. why should i be? it doesn’t take bleeding to make a woman. ask my mum. that’s not what this ad is about. its about a drag queen in a cat fight.”

I agree. The portrayal of the women’s bathroom as an arena for social competition was the intended target of the commercial’s gag – a dreadful concept for the product’s target demographic.

Ultimately though, it’s all subjective. That’s my opinion and now I hope you will have yours – no strings attached.

Written by Suz Tucker: a human being who occasionally menstruates