The print ads for a South Florida Karate School featuring young boys doing stereotypically "feminine things" like wearing their mother's high heels or playing with make-up have been making their way around the internet this past week and causing lots of debate and anger. The ads seem to use gay panic and gender shaming to say that the cure for this "shocking" behavior and the best way to "man up" your obviously queer kid is to take karate classes to "straighten them out."
I spoke to the Zubi Ad Agency, whose motto is to "Erase Sterotypes", which created the ads to try and get clarification about the situation that led to these ads being made public and learned some interesting background. Here's the explantation from Joe Zubizarreta, the chief operating officer of Zubi Advertising:
The ads in question were posted by an individual that works at our agency on a site that creatives use to share ideas and get comments from others in their line of work. The art director who developed them told me that he had posted this campaign as well as three others to get feedback from other creatives as to their opinions of the work. We want you to know that we don't condone this action and we are taking steps to make sure something like this never happens again. I apologize to you and anyone else that may have thought we knowingly allowed these ads to leave the agency. These ads were never produced nor would they have seen the light of day had they come across my desk.
The creator of these ads is very apologetic and never intended to offend anyone however, we as the owners, understand that they can be considered offensive and would not under any circumstances have ever let them ever be produced. Zubi Advertising embraces and celebrates all religions, lifestyles and ethnicities as part of our "Erase Stereotypes" philosophy.
The phone conversation I had with the COO of Zubi was actually very illuminating. Mr. Zubizarreta seemed very contrite about the ads, especially for the way they reflected on the Key Biscayne's Academy Of Martial Arts RDCA, which never approved the ads in any way. He also seemed very open to listening to why these ads were offensive to so many people and willing to let this be a teachable moment for both him and his agency.
While I do question the atmosphere of an office where these ads could be created in the first place, using them as a jumping off point in a conversation to educate about the danger of using shame and rigid gender roles has actually made a difference. The perfect example is when I explained the problematic use of the term "lifestyles" in the official statement, which many in the LGBT community find to be offensive and denote a negative changeable "choice" like the use of "sexual preference." Mr. Zubizarreta seemed genuinely surprised and thankful to learn and grow from the conversation.
Another positive outcome from the public discussion around the ads was from the Karate School itself. A reader of the Bilerico Project contacted the an instructor from the school to offer them some training materials on how to reach out to the LGBT community and how to also be more sensitive to young kids who may not fit into the traditional gender binary. The school has been very receptive and interested in learning on how to make all students, families, and communities feel welcome in their business. While the school actually had nothing to do with the ads, it seems they recognize an area of their business plan that is lacking and are taking steps to fix it.
These steps and conversations are important. While they certainly aren't an endpoint in the debate over using stereotypes and gender-shaming in advertising or in society in general, nor do they excuse the creation of the ads in the first place, they do show that movement forward can be made. It also shows the power of calling out things that play into the dangerous problem of bullying, shame, and violence towards young people who happily exist outside of the outdated, rigid gender roles of yesteryear. By confronting these situations that reinforce the attitude that "different is wrong", we can continue to shift the conversation forward and hopefully make it easier for the next generation of children that come along after us.
Reinforcing rigid gender roles that no child (or adult, for that matter) truly fits into has real world consequences. The violence, bullying, suicides, and emotional distress that it causes can be seen in the horrendous stories we see in the news far too often- stories of parents beating their effeminate sons to "toughen them up" or students killing their classmates for being "too gay."
We have a duty to challenge these actions and the ideas that create them or reinforce them. The conversations to break down these stereotypes and educate only happen if we take the responsibility into our hands and not only get angry, but also reach out to change minds.
That's when the conversation really begins.