Why is every Christmas TV advert like a nail gun to the tearducts?

We're looking at you, Coca Cola, John Lewis, Asda, Morrisons and Very.

Here it is, Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun. Well, it isn't, and they aren't, but it might as well be. For this weekend, all the Christmas advertising campaigns launched. "Holidays are coming", chant the perennially joyful Coca-Cola singers in Rainbowland as a giant truck snarls down Main Street, cruelly failing to add "Open brackets, in six weeks' time, if you're lucky, close brackets".

What have we become? What led us to here? What led us to a world in which every single advert ever has to have snow in it, and try and make us cry? What happened? What have we done to deserve this? In Christmasadvertland, it always snows, and families are lovely, and mums do everything, and men are hopeless and buy a turd in a box and have to get helped out, because their rancid brains are full of stupid, and it always snows. Stop the madness. Stop it now.

It's John Lewis's fault, of course. We've been destined for this ever since grown adults shed salt tears at last year's sickening glurgefest in which a boy bought his mum and dad the present of a nice lie-in on Christmas morning, set to the horrific choral excoriation of the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want".

At least that had something going for it - it upset those fun vacuums who still like Morrissey - but this year's offering hasn't even got that bronze lining. No, we're stuck with another plodding "classic" with the vital organs and even the less pleasant offal ripped out of it, leaving just the squishy inedible connective tissue - "The Power of Love" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood depicting the story of a snowman buying some gloves for his icy inamorata.

I don't wish to get tediously literal about a mushy bit of sentimental old flannel which is designed to make you spend money in an expensive shop. But let me say this: How did the snowman pay for his purchase? Did he tap out his pin on a keypad using a spindly twig finger? If he did, surely he would have realised that, with fingers made out of twigs, gloves were probably the worst possible present of all to buy his for his snowy ladylove.

It's a despicable slushpuppie of an advertisement, appealing at first but causing horrifying brainfreeze immediately afterwards. Why is the snowlady so passive? Why is it only the snowman who is doing the purchasing of Christmassy things? Why are snowpeople in love with each other, despite lacking sexual characteristics of any kind? It's not that it's heteronormative that annoys me; it's the sheer bloody predictability of it all.

Enough. It's not just John Lewis peddling levels of sticky-sweet sentimentality that should come with a health warning for diabetic viewers. They're all at it. Asda, who you can usually rely on just to tell you that their things are cheap and, hey, why not come down and buy some, have attempted to ace the field with their own advent offering.

It's even worse. In Asda's advert we're told that mums are responsible for everything Christmassy. Hooray, you might say, what a warm and welcome departure from the patriarchal figure of Der Julemanden or Papa Noel popping down chimneys of an Xmas Eve, but you'd be wrong: this isn't the mother as empowered twenty-first-century totem, but a horrible message that everyone should hate.

Mums should hate it, because supposedly they have to do every bloody thing forever, and get no help, and that's just the way it is; and everyone who isn't a mum, or who doesn't have one should hate it, because apparently they're missing out on the sine qua non of Christmastime. Woe betide you if your dad's doing the Christmas dinner, because it's bound to be shit. That's the message.

Morrisons' meagre dribble of a commercial is the same. SuperMum struggles by and does everything, because she "wouldn't have it any other way". Really? Well, you see, we have let this happen. We didn't complain about the execrable "proud sponsors of mums" garbage during the Olympics; we didn't complain about John Lewis's nailgun to the tearducts last festive season, so we're stuck with this. Forever.

Then you have the Very advert: stupid braindead MAN has bought something RUBBISH because he's a MAN and only the clever WOMAN can do something about it. Regular readers will know I'm no fan of the whiny perinea who mewl about "misandry", but come off it: this kind of thing should have gone out with the Ark, shouldn't it? Is this really only as far as we've come in all these years?

Please. For me. For all of us who quite like Christmas, but start to see the joy of being a Jehovah's Witness with every passing commercial break, can we just have a bit less snow? A bit less sexism? A bit less lachrymosity, and a bit more fun? Is that too much to ask, Santa? Please, please, please, let me get what I want...

 

How did the John Lewis snowman pay for his gifts, eh?
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Warren K Leffler at Wikimedia Commons
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"She wore a USB cord instead of a necklace": whatever happened to Cyberfeminism?

The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both cyber-positive and sex-positive.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I met someone else called Joanna Walsh. The fact that this is also my name drew me to study her closely. We were about the same age. She worked in the tech side of the arts world, with which I was also connected via a loose network of zines, "comix" and journals. Instead of a necklace, she wore a USB cord. She knew how to program. She was a cyberfeminist. 

Cyberfeminism had been a word since 1991, coined separately by the British philosopher Sadie Plant (once profiled painfully in the Independent on Sunday as the “IT girl for the 21st Century”) who was then running the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit with fellow philosopher Nick Land, and by the Australian art collective VNS Matrix

In September 1997, the First Cyberfeminist International meet-up took palce in Germany, and the artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that its members "agreed not to define the term" cyberfeminist, but to understand it through negative. As a result, the Old Boys Network, a cyerfeminist alliance founded at the event, wrote “100 Anti-Theses” in languages from Croatian to Indonesian. The theses defined cyberfeminism by what it is not: “cyberfeminisme n'est pas une pipe… cyberfeminism is not post-modern… cyberfeminismo no es rock'n’roll” - as a gap, a lack, but also posited this newly-available "cyber" space as a place into which bodies could be projected, and within which they could be remade.

Nineties cyberfeminism drew heavily on contemporary feminist postmodernist theory, including the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigary. As with any radical movement concerned with identity politics, there was a tension between repurposing or remixing stereotypes and the near-impossible task of destroying them and creating new archetypes. The work of trans cyberfeminist Sandy Stone is indicative of much of the movement’s gender-fluid stance: the Old Boys Network's founding aim was to “contribute[s] to the critical discourse on new media, especially gender-specific aspects,” by members who self-select “if you call yourself a woman.” 

"A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century” by VNS Matrix.

As Sadie Plant explains in her book Zeros and Ones—and as Elena Ferrante demonstrates through her (anti?) heroine Lila in the Neapolitan novels, who is an early coder — computing was once considered “women’s work’”. Like Plant, MIT Professor and digital theorist Sherry Turkle described women as digital natives, particularly suited to its “bricolage” methods. The VNS Matrix art collective, by contrast, saw women as biological infiltrators of “Big Daddy Mainframe”. 

Like other strands of 1990s feminism, whether they were prefixed with “Riot” or “Spice”, Cyberfeminism was “girl”-oriented. Zines were called gURL, and Geek Girl, and in 1995 Linda Dement made a “Cyberflesh Girlmonster”. The movement was young, energetic, educated, and art school-heavy. Above all it was “positive”: both “cyber-positive” and “sex-positive”. Cyberfeminism’s enthusiasm, its refusal to self-define, could be exhausting, but is it exhausted? The OBN's calendar takes us up to 2003, the function feminism timeline to 2005. In 2012 a reassessment of the movement titled Cyberfeminism 2.0, was published. What happened in the interim?

What happened is, we all became users. The internet is so embedded in our lives as to make the prefix “cyber” tautologous as “road traffic” or “free gift”, but use of a medium implies neither expertise or control. Not only have women become notoriously scarce in programming, but, as technology becomes more complex, everyone is losing access to the basic means of production. JR Carpenter, a digital artist who continues to make “handmade” web pages, quotes Lori Emerson’s 2014 Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound:

“‘The iPad works because users can’t know how it works.’ Reading the web on an iPhone, iPad, or similar device, readers do not have the option of viewing the page source. The iPad provides consumers with access to materials created by others, but cannot easily be used as a tool in the handcrafting of new materials.”

As internet consumers we are all feminised, invited to complete ourselves through purchase: “The boundary between empowerment/subjectivity/agency and market-driven formation of self, which in fact has never been clear, becomes more nebulous,” wrote Radhika Gajjala’s and Yeon Ju Oh in their introduction to Cyberfeminism 2.0. “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” declared Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto, published in 1991, Cyberfeminism’s year zero. But who are our cyborgs now? Default-female Siri and her cohort of servers with a smile? The internet’s “Mechanical Turks’”, mostly women in low-pay jobs whose hand-input is disguised as technology? 

The net can be an echo chamber of reinforced thought as, from Twitter to porn sites, users seek out communities that reflect their offline opinions. “Networked knowledge,” wrote David Weinberger  in a recent essay in the LARB, “is inextricable from its social context,” and can even offer a new, improved platform for offline prejudice. In April, the Guardian catalogued what everyone already knew: that’s it’s primarily their women (followed by non-white) correspondents whose work attracts trolling, abuse and threats.

An unusual feature of Cyberfeminism was how quickly it began to bemoan its own demise. Gashgirl/Doll Yoko/Francesca da Rimini of VNS Matrix wrote as early as 1997:

“after 6 years of surfen sibapussy g-slime as one of the vns matrix pussy posse i don't feel particularly inspired to comment anymore on cyberfeminism/s [if u dont have nothing new to say don't repeat yrself]… cept to say that as far as i rememba things vns matrix never *seriously* wanted to rule the world ..or women to dominate the net...necessarily.... .. but, as artists, we were serious bout usin strategies like irony 'n inversion of cultural stereotypes to raise some of the many issues around women and technology.”

As such, though the internet has been of inestimable benefit as a platform and network for feminist activists (at least those who can access the equipment), “online feminism” is not absolutely identifiable with Cyberfeminism. 

Like Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary, Cyberfeminism it posed a question, rather than giving an answer but, during a brief window of blue-sky thinking as to what the net could be. Artist Cornelia Sollfrank writes that “simply attaching the happy 'cyber' hype to the term feminism in the early 90s opened up immense potential. The synonym for an unreflective, euphoric understanding of new technologies, which 'cyber' definitely is, breathed new life into the debates around gender and feminism.”

Now, Cyberfeminism remains live because rejection of definition is its founding feature. Many 90s cyberfeminist groups and artists are still practicing, including Subrosa, Studio XX, and forums on OBN and elsewhere remain active. Members of the CCRU and VNS Matrix can be found working in academia and the arts, and contemporary theorists include Professor Radhika Gajjala who writes particularly on "subaltern" and south Asian "Cyberselves".“Cyberfeminism does not express itself in single, individual approaches but in the differences and spaces in between,” writes Sollfrank. “All continue to write the story.”

But now, when I use Google to search for “Joanna Walsh”, even in conjunction with institutions with which we were both linked, the only name I find is my own. 

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here