Pink Bic Pens and Man Crisps might be patronising, but we buy them

At a crude level, marketeers and advertisers will only produce such guff because enough of us indulge their campaigns with our custom. It's more troubling when companies start prescribing gender roles to infants.

I sit here writing on a sturdy black laptop, drinking coffee from an oversized, dark blue chunky mug. If I get peckish later I might pop out for a chocolate bar, or Man Fuel as I call it, or maybe a packet of crisps - Man Crisps, naturally, none of your effete, wispy, prawn cocktails for me, washed down with a sugar-free soda branded with something snappy and butch like Max or Zero. Real men don't count calories. When work is done and the woolly mammoth dragged back to the cave I might treat myself to a beer, and of course it will be a proper beer with proper colour, not one like this. I am man. Hear me burp, fart and whimper with indigestion.

OK, I'm exaggerating, but not much. Although on any given day you're more likely to find me gripping a spatula than a lump-hammer, like the vast majority of the human race, I perform my socially-decreed gender roles thoughtlessly and effortlessly. It is there in what I do, how I do it and, above all, what I buy.  Nutritionists say we are what we eat. In truth we are what we eat, drink, wear, drive, play with, use and otherwise consume.

The wags of social media have been having fun for the past week or so with the Amazon page for the new 'Bic For Her' ballpoint pens. If this has somehow passed you by, just a few of the customer comments have been helpfully collated by Jezebel and just about every other blog on the internet. There is something inherently ridiculous about a cheap biro specifically designed for the female scribe, and many of the witty barbs are well aimed, but ultimately this product is no more ridiculous than the countless products marketed needlessly at one gender or the other.

The 'Bic For Her' line caught the imagination for two reasons, firstly it served as a long-awaited sequel to the classic Bic Pen Amazon review game, and perhaps more importantly  because the manufacturer eschewed  any attempt at subtlety in their gender marketing. The company could just as easily have produced something called the 'Bic Chic', perhaps, with the same pastel colours, slimline design and feminine curves. We would all have known exactly what they were doing and why, but I doubt there would have been the same collective urge to point and laugh.

There's a popular urge to yell 'SEXIST!' at advertising campaigns which overtly, unashamedly play to exaggerated gender norms and stereotypes, but personally I find them less offensive - and I suspect they may be less socially corrosive - than the constant drip dripping of low level gender role stereotypes that serve as inescapable mood music to our lives. I mean the likes of the vile Proctor and Gamble Olympics ad, 'Proud Sponsors of Mums' which attributed the glory of British Olympians to the mothers who stayed home washing the sports kit, presumably while the dads were out teaching the budding athletes to run, jump and throw. I mean the Oven Pride 'So easy a man could do it' campaign, and dozens  more like those.

Devoid of the knowing, self-mocking irony of the McCoy's Man Crisps, for example, these campaigns present a representation of our modern society that is largely archaic and crass, and to some degree cements in popular culture a reactionary model that excludes diversity of gender roles, sexuality and lifestyle. I don't believe such adverts should be banned, but they can certainly be condemned.     

Capitalist producers and public consumers have a symbiotic relationship. Each plays their role in creating demands to be supplied, manufacturing needs to be met. At a crude level, marketeers and advertisers will only produce such guff because enough of us indulge their campaigns with our custom. Our purchases add up to our public personae, and of course our gender is a key component of our identity. As autonomous adults we can choose the extent to which we want to play along with such constructions. It is rather more troubling when companies like Argos start prescribing gender roles to infants with strictly demarcated Toys for Boys and Toys for Girls.

Gender diversity, allowed to flourish freely, individually and without constraint, is a healthy and beautiful thing. If a woman enjoys buying a pretty little pastel-coloured biro, I'm happy for her. If she decides the crudely gendered marketing is patronising and insulting, then I'm pleased for us all. Ultimately, the true social media superstar of the gendered marketing debate is the eloquent little tyro at the heart of this YouTube hit. Give 'em hell, sister. 

Bic For Her! Because women need special lady pens.
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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot