"We are just protecting women's rights to take their clothes off."
Such was the defense from Ryanair, the low-cost Irish airline, for a charity calendar featuring female flight attendants in bikinis. As reported by Reuters, the Women's Institute (a department of Spain's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs) promised to file complaints with Irish and E.U. authorities on the ground that Ryanair's calendar broke Spanish law by encouraging macho behavior and violence against women. The Women's Institute's objection, as reported in the Guardian, is that the choice of displaying only female bodies objectifies women. Had the "The Girls of Ryanair" included men, they wouldn't have objected.
Controversies about females stripping down and posing next to the months of the Gregorian reform calendar are not new. In fact, vociferous objections often seem to be part of the marketing plan; there's nothing like a little outrage to grease the publicity gears. The most famous of these calendars -- "The Ladies of Rylstone," an understated series of "nudie" shots created by a group of middle-aged British women to fund leukemia research -- made more than $550,000 and inspired the film "Calendar Girls," starring Helen Mirren, not to mention slews of copycat calendars. A 102-year-old woman released one this year.
Last year, top Australian female golfers posed for "Top Shots," a glitzy, airbrushed collection of clubs, balls and boobs that seemed to fairly ooze with Vaseline. The National Breast Cancer Foundation of Australia yanked its support at the last minute, not because of the photos' raunchiness, but because the "perfect breasts" of the female athletes might be "too confronting" for women who had undergone mastectomies.
There's a fine line between prudery and reason, exploitation and freedom, when it comes to debating the virtues and vices of selling the female body for a good cause. Of course, no one wants to take away "women's rights to take off their clothes," but there's such a tangled history of using women's bodies to sell things that using cleavage to raise money will inevitably turn some stomachs and stir up debate. Which brings me back to the current controversy about swimsuited stewardesses posing near airplanes. Maria Jesus Ortiz of the Women's Institute told the Guardian, "We're not talking about morals or nudity, it's simply how women are portrayed."
Fair enough. What if there had only been one male flight attendant in his Euro Speedo? Or two? Would that have removed the whiff of exploitation from the other 10 pictures of bodacious broads in bikinis? I'm not so sure. It's not that I'm a prude -- I've done my share of seminude performance for a good cause -- but it's a delicate argument to say that women are being disrespectfully portrayed if they do something without men, but if men are naked on the next page then it's all cool. By the same token, it's a weird argument to suggest that the "perfect" breasts of female athletes are offensive, while imperfect breasts are cool.
Unfortunately it's not that simple. Some of what determines offensiveness is context -- the sorts of ideas that don't fit well into sound bites. The Ryanair calendar -- not the work of a small group but a large corporation -- seems particularly icky. Along with the cheesy all-female spreads, including one involving soap foam that looks like a plane has just ejaculated on a woman, there's the fact that a modern corporation is referring to its employees as "girls." But what bums me out most about the girlie-calendar-for-a-good-cause phenomenon isn't the sexism so much as the sheer lack of inventiveness. Can't we think of something other than tits and ass to seduce cash from John Q. Public?