Commentary Media

Superbowl Ads: Give Us 30 Seconds and We Will Give You Warped Messages About Sex, Gender, and Relationships

Martha Kempner

The Superbowl ads that set the sex education world all-a-twitter this year are pretty obvious and I am not the first to call them out.

I am not a football fan; I couldn’t even follow the game on TV until the advent of the computer-generated yellow line. (Oh, so that’s what they’re trying to do!) Still, I love the Super Bowl. I like the tradition of something that happens at the same time every year. I like the food (we always make chili and have recently added potato skins). Mostly, I like the thought that a significant number of people who I don’t know are doing the exact same thing that I’m doing at the same time–”event television” is rare in this age of DVRs.

Like many of those people, I pay more attention to the commercials than the game itself. In fact, I think it’s the only time I ever really watch commercials (as I mentioned, it is the age of the DVR). The problem is that as a sex educator and commentator, watching them kind of feels like work. I want to just enjoy them for the humor and the cleverness and marvel at how people came up with that idea, or alternatively complain about their lameness and failure to live up to the hype. But I spend so much of the rest of the year commenting on the warped messages society gives young people and adults about sex, gender, and relationships that each year, without fail, the Super Bowl ads serve up a microcosm of all these messages. For four million a pop, advertisers jam generations worth of bad messages into 30 seconds bits.

So as much as I want to sit back, acknowledge that advertisers have a product to sell (and that sex educators—with our insistence on appropriate messaging—would make lousy ad execs), I can’t. Like so many of my colleagues, I feel compelled to comment. The ads that set the sex education world all-a-twitter this year are pretty obvious and I am not the first to call them out.

There’s the Doritos ad where the daughter convinces her father to play “princess” with her instead of football with his friends by offering him a bag of the flavored chips. The gender messages in this one are pretty straight forward; girls like to play princesses while men prefer football (oh, and mom is out grocery shopping). Moreover, the humor in the commercial is based on the idea that men who wear dresses and make-up are inherently funny. To add to the effect, they cast stereotypically “manly” men—with beards and all. Jill McDevitt of thesexologist.orgcalls the ad “trans-phobic” because it suggests that men who put on dresses should “expect to be mocked.”

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Go Daddy, the web hosting company that first burst onto the scene in 2005 with a Super Bowl ad featuring a large-busted actress in a very small tank top, had a Janet-Jackson-like wardrobe malfunction while testifying in front of a mock congressional committee about the ad she wants to air during the Super Bowl. The company has used sexy women in their advertisements ever since. Interestingly, race-car driver Danica Patrick serves as the company’s  spokesperson—in another context, she might be seen as a role model for young girls wanting to break into male-dominated arenas.

Patrick is the narrator in this year’s commercial, “A Perfect Match,” in which super-model Bar Rafaeli makes out with a super-nerd. The audio is tweaked so high that the kiss sounds sloppy and gross. Afterwards, Rafaeli gives the camera a quick glance that seems to say: “I’m not pleased that I had to do that but I had to do that.” Put simply the commercial says that kissing anyone who doesn’t meet society’s standards of beauty is gross, and the idea that an ugly guy could get it on with a pretty girl is comically unrealistic.

Then there’s Audi. I really wanted to like the Audi ad. It shows an awkward teenage boy bravely going to the prom alone and getting more confidence when his father lets him the drive the Audi. It’s a great set up, we can all relate to that stage of life. Unfortunately, what the boy does with that added bravado is walk right up to the prom queen and kiss her. Again, it should be cute but it’s not because it seems pretty obvious that she barely knows him and hasn’t consented to kissing him. In fact, at first she seems quite reluctant to do it but like all screen heroines since Scarlett O’Hara, she eventually gets into it. This just reinforces the age-old idea that women really want it, they just don’t know it, and tells young guys to: “keep at it, she’ll come around.” It may seem funny when it’s a kiss but it’s still sexual behavior without consent.

The commercial ends with him driving away with a black eye clearly provided by her date but he’s smiling because he was brave. One friend of a young son said he was upset with the ad because he had to explain to his son that hitting wasn’t okay (he suggested a car chase would have solved that issue and been more appropriate). Jill McDevitt points out that this commercial should be offensive to men as well: “Calling this ‘brave’ and insinuating that reckless and irresponsible behavior, even if it ends in a black eye, is worth it because it restores masculinity is really insulting to men.”

I suppose though, that the one everyone in my line of work is talking about is the Kia ad in which the kid in the backseat asks the dad the dreaded question: “where do babies come from?” The dad comes up with an elaborate explanation of how they come from the planet Babylandia complete with babies, pandas, puppies, and piggies in space suits. When the kid rejects his dad’s fantasy explanation and begins to repeat what his friend said, the dad employs the car radio’s amazing voice controls and starts “Wheels on the Bus” before he can even tell if the friend told his son the truth or something even crazier than a planet full of babies of all species.

This one really rankled my colleagues. Some worried that kids would see it and get confused but thanks in part to the black-out it didn’t play until after 10 p.m. so most kids who don’t already know where babies come from were likely sleeping. Others pointed out that this sends multiple terrible messages to parents. As Kirsten deFur notes in her blog, fearlesssexeducator, it tells parents that it’s okay to make up answers if you don’t know or are uncomfortable with the real one, that sexuality is a topic to be avoided, and that it’s fine to cut off your kid when he’s trying to tell you what he knows.

Leslie Kantor, Vice President of Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, writes that:

“Rather than allowing Super Bowl ads to impart erroneous information to our kids, we can use everyday opportunities to have conversations with them about our values and how to make sense of what they see in the media and hear from friends.”

She points out that talking to your kids about sex isn’t hard and we do it every day: “We can use teachable moments, use humor — it’s okay to own our own discomfort! — and put some thought into the main messages we want to give our children about sex and sexuality.”

The thing that struck me about the ad was how sexual the father’s fantasy explanation of where babies come from was. The dialogue includes the words “shoots off” and “penetrates” and the visuals of the babies on the way to earth look just like sperm swimming toward the egg. I get that this is what makes the ad funny and creative but if someone’s lying because they’re too uncomfortable with the truth wouldn’t they stick to storks and cabbage patches?

And, the kid is sitting next to his little brother. I know kids ask questions at different times but I’d be surprised that the question or some form of it didn’t come up during the nine months their mom was pregnant. That’s when I had to explain it to my older daughter; as I’ve said before, even I didn’t quite get it right. For months she thought her sister was in an egg in my uterus waiting to hatch. Plus when she finally did ask how the sperm from daddy got near the egg in the first place, I couldn’t help but giggle.

But I survived, and I told the truth and now she knows what she needs to know as she gets older. (In fact, one day when my husband pretended he didn’t know her and said “Hey, where did you come from?,” she looked at him like he was an idiot and said “Your wife’s uterus!”) Most importantly, though, she knows that I will answer her questions honestly to the best of my ability and that I’m not going to try to drown out her ideas with bad kid music.

I have to say that overall, I found this year’s commercials pretty dull. There wasn’t a kid-darth-vader in the bunch. Unfortunately, there were tons of bad messages about gender, sex, and relationships, and many reasons for me to work on Super Bowl Sunday. At least I had some chili.

News Human Rights

Mothers in Family Detention Launch Hunger Strike: ‘We Will Get Out Alive or Dead’

Tina Vasquez

The hunger strikers at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania are responding to recent comments made by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in which he said the average length of stay in family detention is 20 days. The women say they've been in detention with their children between 270 and 365 days.

On Monday, 22 mothers detained inside Pennsylvania’s Berks County Residential Center, one of the two remaining family detention centers in the country, launched a hunger strike in response to recent comments made by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Jeh Johnson in which he said the average length of stay in family detention is 20 days.

The average length of stay for the 22 hunger strikers has been between 270 and 365 days, they say.

Erika Almiron, director of the immigrant rights organization Juntos and a core member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, informed the women detained inside Berks of Johnson’s recent comment via email, hoping they would want to release a statement that her organization could help amplify. Instead, the women decided to launch a hunger strike, with recent reports indicating the number of participants has risen to 26.

“When Johnson said [ICE] only detain[s] people for 20 days, he said that thinking that no one would care,” Almiron told Rewire. “Our goal has always been to make people aware of the inhumane nature of detention in general, but also that children are being locked up and moms are being held indefinitely.”

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By definition, “family detention” means the women in Berks are detained alongside their children, who range in age from 2 to 16 years old. In an open letter addressed to Johnson, the women share that their children have routinely expressed suicidal thoughts as a direct result of being imprisoned. The women allege that they are being threatened by psychologists and doctors in the detention center for making this information public, but are choosing to move forward with the hunger strike.

In part, the letter reads:

The teenagers say being here, life makes no sense, that they would like to break the window to jump out and end this nightmare, and on many occasions they ask us if we have the courage to escape. Other kids grab their IDs and tighten them around their necks and say that they are going to kill themselves if they don’t get out of here. The youngest kids (2 years old) cry at night for not being able to express what they feel … We are desperate and we have decided that: we will get out alive or dead. If it is necessary to sacrifice our lives so that our children can have freedom: We will do it!

An August 2015 report about the Berks center by Human Rights First, a human rights advocacy organization, seemed to confirm what women and children detained inside of the facility have been saying since the detention center’s inception in 2001: Detention is no place for families and being imprisoned is detrimental to the health and well-being of children.

According to the Human Rights First report, detained parents in Berks experience depression, which only exacerbates the trauma they experienced in their countries of origin, and their children exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, and increased aggression. Frequent room checks that take place at 15-minute intervals each night also result in children experiencing insomnia, fear, and anxiety, the report says.

Families detained inside of Berks have no real means to alleviate these symptoms because the facility does not provide adequate mental health care, according to the report. Human Rights First notes that Berks does not have Spanish-speaking mental health providers, “though the majority of families sent to family detention in the United States are Spanish-speaking and many have suffered high rates of trauma, physical and sexual violence, and exploitation.”

The organization also explains that only 23 of the total staff at Berks (or less than 40 percent) reportedly speak some conversational Spanish, “making it difficult for many staff members to effectively communicate with children and their parents.”

Berks has a history of human rights abuses. A 41-year-old former counselor at Berks was recently sentenced to between six and 23 months of jail time for the repeated sexual assault of a 19-year-old asylum-seeking mother. The young woman, along with her 3-year-old son, fled sexual domestic violence in her native Honduras. The assaults on the young mother at the detention center were witnessed by at least one of the children detained with her.

There have also been health-care issues at Berks, including the failure by the detention center to provide adequate services, according to Human Rights First.

The organization was able to collect some of the letters women detained at Berks wrote to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), along with ICE’s response to their concerns. One woman, detained at Berks for four months, told ICE that her 5-year-old daughter had diarrhea for three weeks and that the detention center’s doctor failed to provide her child with any medication or other care. The woman asked for “adequate medication” for her daughter and for the opportunity to have her asylum case handled outside of detention. ICE’s response: “Thank you! You may disolve [sic] your case at any time and return to your country. Please use the medical department [at Berks] in reference to health related issues.”

Using family detention as a way to handle migrants, especially those fleeing violence in Central America, has been called inhumane by many, including activists, advocates, mental health specialists, and religious leaders. But the prolonged detainment of women and children at Berks is in violation of ICE’s own standards.

In June of 2015, Johnson announced a series of reforms, including measures aimed at reducing the length of family detention stays for families who had passed a protection screening. But then earlier this month, Johnson defended family detention, saying, “The department has added flexibility consistent with the terms of the [Flores] settlement agreement in times of influx. And we’ve been, by the standard of 1997, at an influx for some time now. And so what we’ve been doing is ensuring the average length of stay at these facilities is 20 days or less. And we’re meeting that standard.”

But all of the 22 mothers on hunger strike at Berks have been in detention for months, according to the letter they sent Johnson.

There’s also the issue that in July, a federal appeals court ordered DHS to end family detention because it violates Flores v. Johnson, which determined that children arriving to the United States with their mothers should not be held in unlicensed detention centers. Soon after, family detention centers scrambled to get licensed as child-care facilities (a battle they’re losing in Texas), but the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) licensed Berks to operate as a children’s delinquency center. In October 2015, PA DHS decided not to renew the license, which would have expired February 21, 2016, because the facility holds asylum-seeking families as opposed to only children, as the license permitted. Berks appealed the decision to not renew its license, and continues to operate until it receives a ruling on that appeal.

“Our argument from the start has been that we don’t think any of this is legal,” Almiron told Rewire in a phone interview Friday afternoon. “What is happening inside of Berks is illegal. I have no idea how they continue to operate. Right now, Berks does not have a license. It was revoked because the license they did have didn’t fit what they were doing. They also have prolonged detention. Women who are hunger striking have been there 360-something days, but then Jeh Johnson says it’s only 20 days. There is no accountability with DHS or ICE. There are numerous ways [DHS and ICE are] not accountable, but Berks is a prime example. There is no transparency and they can to change the law whenever they like.”

Neither DHS nor Berks responded to requests for comment from Rewire.

Advocates have expressed concerns that the women in Berks will be retaliated against by ICE and detention center employees because of their participation in the hunger strike. As Rewire reported, when women at Texas’ T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a former family detention center, launched a hunger strike in November 2015, participants alleged that ICE used solitary confinement and transferred hunger strikers to different facilities, moving them further from their family in the area and their legal counsel. ICE denied a hunger strike was even taking place.

In December 2015, men detained at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, ended a 14-day hunger strike after a local judge authorized officials to force-feed one of the hunger strikers because of his “deteriorating health” due to dehydration. Advocates told Rewire force-feeding was being used as a form of retaliation.

Almiron said the hunger strikers at Berks have already been threatened by guards, who told the women that if they continue to hunger strike and they get too weak, their children will be taken away from them. The organizer said the letter the women wrote to Johnson shows their bravery, and their understanding that they are willing to take whatever risk necessary to help their children.

“Honestly, I think they’ve been retaliated against the moment they came to this country. The fact that they’re in detention is retaliation against their human survival,” Almiron said. “Retaliation happens in detention centers all the time, women are threatened with deportation for asking for medical care for their children. These women are incredibly strong. In my eyes, they’re heroes and they’re committed to this fight to end family detention, and so are we.”

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Two Years After Darren Wilson Killed Michael Brown, Police and the Media Need to Do Better

Jenn Stanley

"There are systems in place that are attacking our communities," explained Tara Tee of Hands Up United. "A lot of the things we’re doing is just rebuilding and creating plans to sustain, so that whatever this gap is doesn’t occur again.

It’s been two years since since Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri. Caught on camera, the murder sparked weeks of demonstrations and protests, to which police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. It garnered national attention and made Black Lives Matter a household hashtag.

Tara Tee is a Black woman from St. Louis. At the time, she was working as a project manager at a corporate tech job, but she knew she couldn’t sit back and watch.

“We’d be out in the streets until four or five in the morning. Then I would go home and try to sleep for a couple of hours and then get up at eight in time for work,” Tee recalls.

She said she noticed children as young as 10 were joining in on the protests, yelling and asking for answers, and she realized that though they wanted to be involved, the community lacked the resources to educate and organize them. So she and a group of other engaged community members and activists founded Hands Up United, a grassroots organization dedicated to “fulfilling the political void that remains from the historical archives of the Black Power Movement.”

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Tee currently serves as the director of the organization, where she puts a lot of her efforts into its Tech Institute, which teaches coding to 16-to-30-year-olds in the Ferguson/Greater St. Louis area. Hands Up United also hosts Freedom Flicks, a free social justice film series; Books and Breakfasts; and the People’s Pantry. After the organization’s efforts to get people voting in local elections, St. Louis elected its first Black circuit attorney. Tee says her day-to-day is always different, sometimes meeting with community leaders, or running the organization’s programs and events, but that her main objective is always to help rebuild her community, which she says has been broken by systemic racism.

RewireHow did you get involved with activism? And how did Hands Up United get started?

Tara Tee: I don’t necessarily consider myself an activist. I just consider myself a person who understands there are systems working against Black folks in America. I decided to do something about it, which I think most people should do in some way or another.

I went outside once I heard that the police in Ferguson had murdered someone and left his body out in the street for four-and-a-half hours, and all of the horrors that followed, including his mother not being able to approach the body, dogs being called into the neighborhood, dogs being allowed to urinate on his memorial. Just beyond the murder, everything that followed stripped someone’s humanity. It stripped humanity from Mike Brown, from his parents, and from the community.

As a Black woman in St. Louis, there’s no way that I could have not gone out to see, support, talk to, and love on people, and to let the state know that this is not OK. I just felt like it was something I had to do and there were many other people who felt the same way.

The birth of Hands Up United I would say was pretty organic, and it was a situation where it was like building the car while you’re driving it. We were out and doing things and making moves but we were just out because that’s what we felt like we needed to do. It took a while but we realized we needed to create programs to bring political education to the community.

We started thinking about, what does it look like to put something behind the nighttime action and being out in the street? What does it look like to create something that is sustainable, that is going to make a greater impact? Not that being in the street doesn’t make an impact. You and I wouldn’t be talking right now if we had not taken to the streets. You would not know Mike Brown’s name if we had not taken to the street. We have multi-level problems and we need to use every tool that we have to try to dismantle these things that aren’t working for us.

Rewire: What is Hands Up United’s mission?

TT: We’re basically just striving for the liberation of Black and brown people through education, art, advocacy, and agriculture. These are all things that are very important to us because they are all the things that are tied to these systems that are harming our communities.

Everything that we do is going to have a political education component to it, and it’s going to have an art component to it. We’re just trying to build community again. There are systems in place that are attacking our communities. A lot of the things we’re doing is just rebuilding and creating plans to sustain, so that whatever this gap is doesn’t occur again. So that, for example, the next time our neighborhoods are flooded with drugs the same things don’t occur. We ask kids to support Black businesses so that we can have a Black Wall Street, but they’re not teaching that history in school. So you’re asking someone to fathom something that they’ve never seen or heard about. So it’s important for us to create spaces and share knowledge that we have about things that are going on.

RewireIt’s clear that Hands Up United deals mainly within the community. Are you affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives, and do you think the work that’s being done nationally is helping on the ground?

TT: We support them, obviously, because our missions are similar. We’ve just picked up the fight of our ancestors. These are some of the same things that we’ve been fighting for for many, many years at this point. If you review their platform, anybody that’s for community would be for these things. It’s very similar to the ten-point platform that the Black Panthers had. These are basic rights that people shouldn’t be having to draw attention to, or be asking for. We shouldn’t have to demand basic human rights.

We are aligned with a lot of the initiatives of the Movement for Black Lives. We work with and know a lot of those folks and organizations that do very good work. We’ve worked closely with some of them, and we are in community with them for sure. If any of them call and need anything we’re coming.

But I also don’t like the whole labeling of things because it creates false narratives and problems. As far as the media is concerned, any person who is Black and has ever attended a protest is Black Lives Matter, or if they’re not they’re the Movement for Black Lives. So my stance and the stance of my organization is that we are for and with Black people, so whoever is trying to push the ball forward for Black people, that’s who we’re with.

RewireAs we approach the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder, what, if anything, would you say has changed?

TT: I would say nationally there’s more awareness regarding situations that are plaguing us, and these situations run the gamut from police brutality, to excessive lead in water, to food deserts, to inferior education systems.

We get the information relatively quickly when something occurs. Before, people affected were like, I don’t know if I should share this. I don’t know if anyone cares. Now people don’t hesitate to share these things, and spread this information.

So awareness, both nationally and locally, is increased. But on the ground, there’s still very much racial profiling, there’s still predatory policing, there’s still ticketing and fines aggressively directed toward poor people. We’re still seeing problems with voter rights. And so when I look at what has honestly changed—not much.

RewireHow do you think the media is doing covering what’s happened in Ferguson, and with other instances of police brutality against Black people?

TT: On a national level, I feel like it’s, for the most part, just propaganda. And then on the local level, for the most part, journalism here isn’t even journalism. There’s no investigative reporting. And so many of the stories start or end with “according to police,” or “the police said,” and it’s just like, well are you just sitting in the newsroom waiting for the police to fax over the story that you should print?

Ida B. Wells said the people committing the murders are the ones writing the reports. So it’s important to understand that the majority of the news that we are getting from the mainstream is generally not the real news.

We need nationwide media literacy. Why do [outlets] always put up a mugshot of the victim and not the cop or vigilante that shot them? It’s just not good reporting that is happening. There are some people who are doing really good work, but on the mass scale there’s just not good reporting happening.

Editor’s note: The above conversation is a lightly edited transcript of an interview between Rewire and Tara Tee ahead of the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s killing. Hear more from Tee via SoundCloud here.

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