Friday, January 27

Cat fight

After the aliens invaded, all professional females
were turned into cats so they could be cuddled.

When I saw the above issue of STEP on my art director's desk a week or so ago, I cringed. The cover just felt wrong, even to someone who relishes irony. But I took my gut reaction, folded it into a little ball, and tucked it into my pocket because I figured I was overreacting and, besides, I had work to do. And then I promptly forgot about it, as is my way with most things in this world.

But Twisty and her lovable, rag-tag team of commenters are on it.

Pissed off subscribers argued in letters to the editor that an issue showcasing men’s design (which, one suspects, is every other issue) would undoubtedly have refrained from insulting its subjects with cheap and, if I may say so, extremely hackneyed sexist stereotypes.

The designers of the kitten cover, both women, defended their stupidity with some asinine bullshit about “re-appropriating” degrading stereotypes. As though it were a matter of high social import that kittens regain their rightful place in modern intellectual discourse as symbols of brilliant, dynamic, creative problem-solvers. Yeah. 2006: the Year of the Kitten.

It goes without saying that if patriarchy didn’t have a white-knuckle grip around the design world’s throat, demanding allegiance to the ideal that the male designer is the default designer, the separate women’s issue–in itself an insult– would never have seen the light of day in the first place.

Yeah, what she said.

What the designers said, in full, was this:

It is indeed true that kittens play into a stereotype of women (and have been used to represent women for centuries). But we honestly believe you can change connotations by re-appropriating them (especially with humor). That’s why it’s OK for Spike Lee to make a movie about minstrel shows but it would not be OK if Woody Allen did. Mel Brooks can get away for Springtime for Hitler, but Prussian Blue can’t … context is everything.

I understand the impulse to try and reappropriate offensive stereotypes, and sometimes it works, other times, not so much. In this case, I don't see any overwhelming impetus for a cover that throws around stereotypical imagery in order to make an empowering, ironic point. Like Twisty implied, what is gained by turning the woman-as-cat stereotype from negative to positive? The designers even argue, as you'll see below, that it's not a man's world anymore and that women have nothing to prove. OK, which is it: Turning stereotypical imagery on its head to make a point, or being flippant and irreverent and just having fun with cute kitten pictures because we have no point to make? Can it be both?

I might have been willing to give the cover designers the benefit of the doubt had they provided a better explanation than this:

KITTENS! We thought, “Who doesn’t like kittens?” People at Barnes & Noble like kittens! Hardened designers in gray cities like kittens! Designers in the expanses of the great Midwest like kittens! Everybody likes kittens! (except puppies.) Plus it’s an unexpected way to show women. (Unexpected because it, like the rock breasts is tongue in cheek). As is mentioned in Emily’s “Editor’s Desk” column, we felt that we have all seen enough pictures of women standing around proving how tough they are or how good they look in suits, and how well they can exist in a man’s world. Well, we decided to make it a kitten world because you know what? It’s not really a man’s world any more. We don’t have anything to prove. And we can laugh at ourselves too.

So we made the Kitten Kover. Don’t we all look kute?

This is supremely stupid, and they sound like fifth graders.

And I'm sorry: "We can laugh at ourselves too"?

What's funny? That women are in design at all, or that woman=pussy=cat, tee hee, get it?

Fuck that, 'cause I don't get it.

It makes this whole situation so much worse knowing that the designers started brainstorming their cover concept in a very weird, inappropriate place, but kudos to them for being up-front about their crass stupidity by posting a photo of what their first two cover concepts looked like:

As if one is less offensive than the other.

Yes, let's celebrate the success of women in design by framing the entire discussion around their truly valuable assets. Ugh. What else can I say? These two designers started out with an immature idea and didn't stray too far from that impulse.

It's a constant source of frustration, this "woman as other" thing we can't seem to get past. Devoting an entire issue to powerful women in design is, I think, an admirable intention, though, as Twisty pointed out, it just means that the default designer is male and that it takes an extra bit of concentration and focus and planning and heave-ho to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of women in the field. I don't know that a special issue to spotlight women is needed; women's contributions to the design world should be spotlighted along with men's in every issue. If that's not happening, it should. If that is happening, then no special issue should be needed.

If, as the women argue, it's not a man's world anymore and we can make fun of ourselves by pretending to be kittens (whatever the hell that means), why do we need an issue devoted to women designers at all?

I don't think the following qualification is necessary -- everyone with functioning eyeballs has valid opinions on the way things are designed -- but here it is anyway: I'm a designer, and, although my field of design is pretty traditional and conservative, I'm acutely aware of the impulse designers in other fields feel to be provocative and original and cheeky by juxtaposing competing images and words and ideas and creating visual puzzles that communicate sometimes specific, sometimes ambiguous points. I appreciate visual irony and puns, so I don't begrudge these designers the chance to go out on a limb with their risque design concepts, and I doubt they had any real intention to offend. Ruffle some feathers, get people talking, sure. And, in that regard, it's good design. I just don't think this cover is an example of well-thought-out, intelligent design with real meaning. And the designers' half-assed explanations only muddy the waters of intent.

If you've not had enough talk of this controversial cover, surf on over to this place or this place for further discussion.


Blogger Brandonian said...

I wouldn't worry about the sexist issues of the magazine too much... I got an advance copy of next month's cover, and they're more than making up for it, I think...

Sat Jan 28, 01:25:00 AM  
Blogger theogeo said...

Oh, you jokester, you.

I really think they're trying to weasel out of some blame by posting this photo.

Sat Jan 28, 03:53:00 PM  
Blogger phallicpen said...

Aw, look. He's petting his cuddly, docile pussy.

Sat Jan 28, 06:34:00 PM  

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