The medium overwhelms the message

topless protest 1
“Breasts Not Bombs” was in the news earlier this month. Two women were arrested for exposing their breasts as part of an anti-Schwarzenegger protest on the grounds of California’s state Capitol. If convicted of committing lewd acts, they may be registered as sex offenders! In my opinion, that would be a ludicrous overreaction.

The leader of the movement, Sherry Glaser, explains that the tactic was inspired by the infamous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction”:

The “Crass and deplorable stunt” that occurred during the half-time show of the Superbowl over took National Headlines. The fact that George Bush Lied to the World and the American People about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction didn’t even make the paper that day. I guess Janet’s Breasts bounced it right off the front page. Am I also to believe that her breast exposure is more horrifying than the death of another six US soldiers and who knows how many Iraqi children and women? Or more indecent than the fact that people are being detained and tortured without any constitutional rights in Guantanamo Bay?

I understand that The FCC is going to order a probe into the Breast situation. They are going to probe the breast exposure. … Isn’t it more in the best interest of Americans for there to be an investigation into Dick Cheney’s ties to Halliburton and his secret meetings with the energy taskforce? …

What I have to surmise from this obsession with Janet Jackson’s breast is that the Breast is mightier than the sword. It seems as though we women have a secret weapon we knew nothing about. The power of the breast. Like any super hero, underneath our everyday clothing lay our true identities. With the slip of some leather and the revelation of a little bit of flesh we command the front page.

I agree with Ms. Glaser to a point. I think the American reaction to the merest flash of Janet Jackson’s breast was bizarre. The degree of outrage suggested a certain sickness in the American psyche. Millions of Canadians watched the same half-time show, and the Canadian equivalent of the FCC received fewer than 100 complaints.

But I think Ms. Glaser is misguided to make breasts a vehicle of political protest, as I will explain.

There are three topless people in the photo at the top of this post. (Of a different protest, not the one at California’s state Capitol.) Let’s consider each of them in turn.

topless protest 2Beauty is a very subjective concept, but I assume we can all agree that this woman is physically attractive.

Maybe too attractive. The medium (breasts) threatens to overwhelm the message (not bombs). I can’t help thinking of the line from the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies:

Admiral Roebuck: With all due respect, M, I think you don’t have the balls for this job. [Note: M is a woman.]

M: Maybe. But the advantage is, I don’t have to think with them all the time.

It’s pathetic, but true:  men tend to “think” with their balls. When a man is in the presence of a beautiful, topless woman, all the blood rushes out of his brain and settles in his groin.

I freely confess that if this woman asked me to sign a petition, I would not hesitate. I would sign in hope that she would direct that warm smile at me. Then I would wander aimlessly for the next couple of hours in a happy erotic haze.

But I would be no more of a pacifist than I was before. Throughout our encounter, the medium would have more of my attention than the message.

topless protest 3This photo may offend some folks, but it doesn’t have much impact on me one way or another. (source) I understand that some men are convinced they are really women trapped in a man’s body. Some such men resort to hormone therapy and radical surgery to become the other. And some, like this fellow, are content to stop half way and be a bit of each.

I’ve never had a transsexual friend, so I’m sure I’m not as sympathetic as I might otherwise be. But I can’t help but wonder about this person’s motives. Is s/he here, sans shirt, primarily because s/he believes so deeply in the pacifist cause? Or is the cause primarily a pretext to expose his/her breasts and flaunt his/her transgendered state?

In the final analysis it probably doesn’t matter too much. We all suffer from the same syndrome:  even when we do the right thing, we never do it 100% for the right motives.

But I know this much for sure:  the medium is once again overwhelming the message, even more powerfully than in the case of the first woman.

topless protest 4
Meet Sherry Glaser, the driving force behind the “Breasts Not Bombs” movement. She says it takes real courage for a woman with a body like hers to disrobe in public:

I must confess, as I did before I disrobed, that this act was terribly frightening. Not just because there were police ready to arrest me and media surrounding me, not to mention registered sex offenders, but because my breasts are huge, I know. I don’t have to tell you that.

I do not fit into the acceptable, popular culturally desirable body type. I’m more like every woman. Every woman who has doubts about her body. Every woman who is afraid to undress with the light on for fear that her flaws will overwhelm her beauty. Everywoman who blossoms at middle age into her full power and voluptuous sexuality. Every woman who is afraid some man will judge her as ugly or fat. Every woman who is afraid that she’s just not right. So it took a mountain of courage for me to do this act.

I find Ms. Glaser’s first-person account very moving. And her fears have been realized:  some men are infuriated because Ms. Glaser isn’t young and gorgeous:

I receive e-mails that are downright stunning as to what my body looks like to them. “Beastly” HUGE TITS” “Disgusting” “hideous” — things like that. People calling me a moron, suggesting I should go to a mental hospital. …

My favorite interaction came from a retired Army Sargeant who served in Viet Nam. His e-mail began, “Do you have any “members with a DECENT HUMAN set of tits? All I have seen are OINKERS. Now I know the meaning of pornography. Put your shirts on Mothers.” Our correspondence began that way and went on for a couple of weeks with a total of about five messages to each other. We came to realize that we were both angry and it wasn’t really about each other.

If Ms. Glaser is willing to put up with such crap, she is obviously deeply committed to the pacifist cause. It’s hard to criticize a woman who is willing to pay a deeply personal price for her convictions. But, in the final analysis, I still think she is misguided.

It’s clear from the hate mail Ms. Glaser receives that the medium is, once again, overwhelming the message. I think it’s appalling that people attack her for not having smaller, perkier breasts. But clearly that’s the only impression the protest makes on many observers.

Aside from the tendency men have to think with their balls, there is another reason why such protests are doomed to fail:  there is no natural connection between breasts and pacifism.

Ms. Glaser and her colleagues try to establish a connection in people’s minds. They cry out,

Breasts Not Bombs, Titties Not Tanks, Nipples not Napalm, Mammaries not missles. The issue is SOFT TISSUE!

I admire that last phrase, “the issue is soft tissue” — it’s very clever. But even if we set the sexual response to one side, the first subject (breasts) does not provide any kind of segue to the other (the carnage in Iraq and elsewhere).

The medium seizes our attention, quite effectively. But then Ms. Glaser and her colleagues struggle in vain to shift our attention to the message. What remains is only the base sexual response, which leads either to arousal or disgust, depending on the beauty of the woman and the maturity of the onlooker.

I have a short follow-up post in mind — no more than a post script, really. But here’s my advice to Ms. Glaser and others who stage similar protests involving public nudity. To achieve your goal, you’ve got to find an intermediary step to shift attention by stages from the medium to the message. I have an example in mind which I’ll share tomorrow.

If the women readers have a different perspective, I’d be very interested to hear it. I know I’ve discussed the issue entirely from the perspective of the male response.

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13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bill
    Nov 15, 2005 @ 16:43:00

    To some degree I see the connection, why is nudity concidered indecent but war isn’t. However, I would seperate the struggles. I think if a group wants to remove the label of indecency from nudity they should concentrate on that goal. Pacificism should be another goal fought in another area.

    The combination seems to trivialize both battles.

    Reply

  2. 49erDweet
    Nov 15, 2005 @ 20:29:00

    I agree with Bill’s final thought. The entire subject seems to be a ‘bust’.

    Reply

  3. Jack's Shack
    Nov 15, 2005 @ 21:30:00

    I think that they missed the boat on this. There is a lot of room for criticism of the war, but they missed it.

    There is nothing shocking about them & as you said their message is just lost.

    If they had something relevant and significant to say they might not need to resort to these tactics.

    Many protesters manage to make their point without this kind of stunt.

    Reply

  4. Mary P.
    Nov 16, 2005 @ 09:16:00

    What they are saying is VERY “relative and significant”. It’s too bad that they are calling attention away from their message, about which they feel so passionately, to their mammaries, which are of no global significance whatsoever, no matter what their size and appearance.

    I think it’s sad that Ms. Glaser has suffered abuse because she’s not model-perfect.

    She has the integrity to accept the consequences of her political act, be it personal abuse and humiliation, fines, or jail time. For that I admire her.

    It is sad that the personal price she so bravely accepts is for nothing. The irony that it is she herself who obscures her own message only makes it sadder.

    Reply

  5. Jack's Shack
    Nov 16, 2005 @ 22:07:00

    What they are saying is VERY “relative and significant”

    Mary P,

    Not really. If you go based upon the opening paragraph of the post which says

    “Breasts Not Bombs” was in the news earlier this month. Two women were arrested for exposing their breasts as part of an anti-Schwarzenegger protest on the grounds of California’s state Capitol.

    There is no relevance between Arnold and the war in Iraq. He didn’t start it and he cannot end it.

    Reply

  6. Mrs.Aginoth
    Nov 17, 2005 @ 09:25:00

    I think the toplessness was a gimmick to get the media attention. The problem is, they didn’t do anything with that attention once got.

    Reply

  7. The Misanthrope
    Nov 17, 2005 @ 15:51:00

    Good post

    Reply

  8. Paul Rapoport
    Dec 13, 2005 @ 17:18:00

    “there is no natural connection between breasts and pacifism.”

    There certainly is a connection, which can hardly be more obvious. It is similar to the connection between many anti-war demonstrations and the action of people in them (often women) lying naked to form a peace symbol or various words.

    Reply

  9. Q
    Dec 14, 2005 @ 09:17:00

    Thanks for the comment, Paul, but I don’t see any rational connection. Yes, there are other protests for peace which likewise involve nudity. But you haven’t explained how the two are connected.

    You say the connection between breasts and peace is “obvious”, but that’s a mere assertion. What precisely are the connecting links between them?
    Q

    Reply

  10. Sherry
    Dec 15, 2005 @ 18:23:00

    Hello bloggers

    It is I, Sherry Glaser. I am thrilled to see that our medium has gotten your attention, which brings us to the message. So many of you have questioned the relationship between Breasts and the war in Iraq, Breasts and peace, Breasts and global signifigance.
    So at this point I must ask you in a simple way?
    What is peace?
    What does it feel like?
    What would the world look like if we were at peace?
    What are you doing to make peace?

    The original author of this blog is a fascinating study for us as he dissects us into three categories, the “attractive”, “the confusing” and the “brave and pitiful, but committed”. What becomes clear to me in this kind of scrutiny is that men still see themselves in the role of authority and the ones who define who we are by what we look like.

    His lament that men are still controlled by their engorged genitals is something he should address with his kin. The violence perpetuated in this world, particularly rape, is a result of that kind of “oh well, we just can’t help our selves” mentality. It is time to renew our respect for women, for the the mother, for the maidens. It is time for men to commit to non-violence and address it within their gender. His casual attitude about this male behavior is dangerous. It puts the woman that he objectifies into the role of his victim, his prey. I find that offensive, indecent.

    We offer that our breasts and the baring of them represent power, freedom, peace, and courage. We believe that there was a time and will be again when women were safe in this world. They were honored, protected, and worshipped. We believe that when we reestablish that paradigm all will be well. Safe and sound.

    Consider what the breasts symbolize. It is life itself. It is the source of sustanance for every baby born. It is even true for every mammal born on this earth. It is the essence of the connection between mother and child. Who is not better off because she nursed at her mother’s breast? Have you ever seen an infant gazing up to her mothers eyes as she suckles? Inifinite joy, relief, beauty. How can baring one’s breast be wrong? Why is the sight of it so depressing, so scandalous, so insignificant in the call for peace?. What better, more common ground can one offer? Everyone has breasts. Have breasts ever hurt anyone? No. Breasts however are in great danger. They are an endangered species.

    Now here’s the danger. War and poverty. Every woman and child is at risk at this moment. Have you read the latest statistics on Breast milk and the toxins therein? Normally chock full of Vitamins, growth hormones, proteins, enzymes and antibodies our most basic nutrition is now fortified with Benzene, mercury, fungicides, flame retardants, DDT and PCB’s. Then there’s the outrageous epidemic of breast cancers. So this action of baring our breasts is geometric in it’s scope.

    As far as the war in Iraq, we as women identify with the mothers and children who are dead, or about to be killed. We are made of soft tissue and when bombs explode our precious bodies and babies are blown to bits. Bombs kill and and maim indescriminately. We are not immune. We resonate with those who endure the daily threat of bombs in the marketplace. We actually feel this phenomenon in our own bodies. We have that ability. It’s called empathy. We have the same capacity for feeling the devestation of the mother when her child comes home as Cargo draped in An American Flag. For a lot of us the sorrow is unbearable. That’s also why I believe my breasts have swelled so dramatically. This sorrow overwhelms me.

    My mother says that our souls manifest what they look like through our bodies. My soul runneth over.

    This action is not just because of the war in Iraq. It is an action against the long list of indecencies and obscenities with which we are confronted. It’s an action regarding the War against the World and the families living in it. It really is a world war. Look at the condition of our soil, our water, our air, our bodies. How much more man made, profit based death will we tolerate? Global warming anyone? We are facing an enormous crisis of our very existence and we at Breasts not Bombs, want to amplify the urgency. We are willing to disrobe to bring this to everyone’s attention. If you all cannot see the depth of our message, then you have been blinded by the puritanical and industrialized society that seems to have us all bound in some fabricated definitions of what is good, in other words, what is decent and what is not.

    Your blog holds simplicity to be sacred and true. Well, in the extraordinarily simple act of baring our breasts we have caused a dialogue of great importance. Feminists who think we are foolish, silly, even embarrassing, are forgeting the power of Lysistrata, of Lady Godiva, of the Grandmothers in Nigeria who shut down Chevron. We offer that we are truly feminists. We do not consider the act of disrobing diminishing to our cause in any way. We are using a physical nature, our natural power to bring change, to bring revolution. For us it is a great act of courage. It is so because we are subject to all your judgements and criticisms.We get it from the far right, the police, and now we’re getting it from the “Left” or the so called “Peace movement”So I must ask you dear members, what is peace?
    Peace is the freedom to stand bare breasted in the world and feel safe. Peace is the safety of our children when they sleep in their beds, when they rise in the morning, and all day long. Peace is abundance. Peace is understanding and open mindedness. Peace is taking care of each other. Peace is kindness and humility. Peace is laughter and joy. We believe that our breasts offer and symbolize all that.
    Some of the statements and accusations on this blog feel like acts of war against us. We live in a culture that was nurtured on war in lieu of the breast. We have very little language that even allows us to disagree without destroying each other’s credibility. We appreciate the inspiring story of Lady Godiva and the responses that echo values of cooperation, appreciation, gratitude, support, wonder, cooperation, common values. Things like “Wow, a creative, non-violent response to the world crisis. Good Luck.” or “Perhaps you are on to something.” or “We pray for your safety.” Those are words of peace. Those ideals are what the peace movement needs.

    You speak of something to unite us all. What better than flesh and bone? What else do we have in common really? Well, our emotions stand out, like the fact that we are all grieving the unessesary and continuing loss of life. Perhaps we have in common our rage against the lies and corruption we are spoon fed daily. Perhaps we are all afraid of the gathering threat of facism. What symbol could we use to represent our common vulnerability? I ask you this? Our answer; Breasts Not Bombs.

    Here’s some feedback we received from an unlikely fellow. I have left the punctuation and grammar as it was received.
    “Sherry we live in a small country town west of Sydney in Australia. We have five kids, & are an ordinary family in an ordinary street in an ordinary town in the middle of nowhere. I am an engineer, my wife, a registered nurse. I have read everything that i can about the war & it,s precursor for four years. The whole thing is a sham & a disgusting misuse of power. We are sending our children to die for a lie. I am english born & when i was a small boy i recall asking my grandpa who was in the trenches in France in WW1 what it was like in the war. By then he was in his sixties, & i saw a look of saddness in his eyes that i never forgot to this day. I am mid fifties. I know he saw evil. Whether i or anyone else, disagrees with your methods,( & i don,t disagree ) is of no relevance. The fact is that you, by your actions, are forcing people to confront the issue. Killing people to settle a difference is maddness. Even if people watch you for a few seconds & turn away, any good psychologist will tell you of the effectiveness of subliminal messages. My sense of humour. Seriously i admire your courage & sense of what is right. I live in a town forgotten by time on the bottom of the world & even i have heard of you. Good luck to you & your friends”

    Let the dialogue continue.

    Reply

  11. Q
    Dec 15, 2005 @ 20:44:00

    Sherry:
    Some of the statements and accusations on this blog feel like acts of war against us.

    It’s a gross exaggeration — even paranoid — to view anything said on this blog as an act of war against you.

    The post was not nearly as negative as you seem to think. I quoted you at length, thereby allowing you to make a case for your cause in your own words. I agree with your cause. And unlike some people, I don’t think it’s immoral for you to expose your breasts to attract attention to the cause.

    I just think, as I said in the title of the post, “the medium overwhelms the message”. That’s it — that’s the sum total of my critique.

    If you don’t have a strong enough ego to receive such criticism as that, you shouldn’t put yourself on the firing line by engaging in such protests.

    FYI: I tried to e-mail you when I published the post to make you aware of it. And I went to your profile again just now, but I still can’t find an e-mail address for you.
    Q

    Reply

  12. SGlaser
    Dec 19, 2005 @ 02:05:00

    Hello again…

    I appreciate the conversation. I find it funny when you say I “shouldn’t put myself on the firing line” if my “ego can’t take the criticism”. That was in response to my statement that some of the statements on the blog were acts of war.
    Now, if you close your eyes and imagine a firing line, you will perhaps understand what I mean. We hardly realize the total integration of war into our daily conversation. We don’t even realize we are at war.

    As far as seeing your blog as negative. I didn’t mean to imply that. I believe that dialogue is excellent. However, I did have reactions to your analysis of the three women posted on your site. I haven’t even addressed the gender issues.

    We are fascinated by the range of responses we have gotten for our actions. In fact we just got a book called “The History of the Breast” You should check it out.

    Breast Wishes for a happy, healthy holy day season.

    Reply

  13. Q
    Dec 20, 2005 @ 10:18:00

    Sherry:
    I did have reactions to your analysis of the three women posted on your site.

    I know that. You didn’t go into detail, but this previous statement was quite condemning of me:

    The original author of this blog is a fascinating study. … Men still see themselves in the role of authority and the ones who define who we are by what we look like.

    Two responses:
    (1) The analysis was meant to be playful. For example, it should be obvious that the image of the man saying, “Can’t think … blood rushing to penis” is hyperbolic. And if it mocks anybody, it (gently) mocks men — not women.

    Similarly, my comment about wandering for hours in a happy erotic haze (in response to the first woman) was hyperbole. It was meant to elicit a chuckle. And the humour was self-deprecating; the chuckle was at my expense.

    When you expose your breasts in public, isn’t the act just a little bit playful? Don’t you invite onlookers to respond playfully in turn?

    (2) You have no personal knowledge of me. And I doubt you’ve read any other entries on my blog — just this one.

    If you sat down with my partner over a cup of coffee, she would give you a fuller picture of who and what I am. As it is, you don’t have enough data to reach an informed conclusion about me, so tone down the hostile rhetoric.

    (Men still see themselves in the role of authority and the ones who define who we are by what we look like. Please — that’s highly insulting.)

    I haven’t even addressed the gender issues.

    You’re referring here to the middle photo? Again, I was careful not to mock the individual. I feared that some readers would be shocked by the photo, so I tried to set it in an appropriate context:

    “I understand that some men are convinced they are really women trapped in a man’s body. Some such men resort to hormone therapy and radical surgery to become the other. And some, like this fellow, are content to stop half way and be a bit of each.”

    Yes, I questioned his/her motives. But I added, “In the final analysis it probably doesn’t matter too much. We all suffer from the same syndrome: even when we do the right thing, we never do it 100% for the right motives.”

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that I was unsympathetic, or paternalistic, or that I set out to “define” the individual by his photograph.

    Similarly, all I said about your photo was, “I think it’s appalling that people attack her for not having smaller, perkier breasts.” I did nothing that should be construed as defining or ridiculing you.

    I don’t think you read the post closely enough. I think you had an emotional reaction to the fact that I criticized your approach. And you projected a lot of nasty stuff onto me that just isn’t there.

    Which brings me back to my remark about how “strong” your ego is. The terminology is borrowed from a psychologist friend of mine. Someone with a strong ego has an unshakable sense of self-worth. They are not arrogant, but neither do they struggle with self-doubt when someone else puts them down.

    The kind of protest you engage in obviously opens you up to mockery. I did not mock you; I tried to discuss the photograph sympathetically and respectfully, if also playfully.

    You found even that kind of scrutiny hurtful and accused me of “acts of war” against you. What else can I conclude? It does not appear that you have a strong enough ego (in the sense given above) to risk being ridiculed by a far less sympathetic audience than me.

    God bless you and your worthy cause in the new year.
    Q

    Reply

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