Context and Confrontation

Assumption is the killer of discourse.

There’s a tankard at my pub that upsets one of the staff. He hides the offending feature when he notices it and the owner was tempted to take it away to avoid any discomfort. The tankard hasn’t invited any comment from customers that I know of, but there is word that it has. I’ve not managed to substantiate those claims and nor has my boss.

The tankard’s owner - an educator, artist, and general rabble rouser - is swiftly becoming one of my favourite regulars. They are fiery, energetic, and passionate. Expressive and chatty. We got along immediately and it is of absolutely no surprise they would choose an object that might be seen as objectionable; they make it their business to take ownership of things that people find difficult.

Where many of the people in the pub know the owner, they also would understand the owner’s attraction to the object, even if they didn’t share the owner’s enthusiasm. The object’s statement comes in the context of its holder. Another person with the same object probably wouldn’t make the same statement. Objects are made with one idea, a kind of user, in mind. That the user isn’t always that intended person creates potential for discussion.

As an undergrad, my advisor would tell me that good design establishes a pattern, but then breaks that pattern. Breaking the pattern draws attention to specific things, specific moments, within the experience of the piece. This tankard establishes a pattern, but its owner breaks that pattern.

"IT’S SEEN AS SEXIST AND OBJECTIFYING BY SOME, AND ACTUALLY, THEY’RE NOT WRONG."

The tankard is upsetting for its handle: a stylised, nude woman facing outward, back arched to form the grip. It’s seen as sexist and objectifying by some, and actually, they’re not wrong. It’s an idealised image of a lady attached to an object that is associated with older men. It’s highly likely it was created in an objectifying light, and it reinforces an idea of pubs being places for older men. In isolation, the object celebrates the female body in a distinctly male context.

The owner is a colourfully dressed, well pierced lady. Just holding her tankard doesn’t nullify the obvious connotations it carries: women can objectify women same as men can. The disruption of this pattern is complex and is wrapped up in knowing what kind of woman the owner is. She, like me, saw this tankard as a beautiful object. Confrontational, absolutely, but not objectifying in that context.

Perhaps this is rather too nuanced for a public house, but more eccentric things can be found in a pub. I take more issue with the typical transgender memes that show some Barbie doll figured person in lingerie talking about wanting to be a girl. Like that’s what being a girl means. This tankard is tame by comparison, and it’s created some interesting discussion about sexism, feminism, and how the context of a statement blurs the line between offensive and thought provoking.

It’s interesting that I find the owner of this tankard enough to break away from the potential negative connotations of the object. The women that post the memes described above don’t transcend the object for their being transgender in my mind. I understand that personal context better in some ways: we all want to be beautiful, we’re all told what beautiful is, and when we’re dysphoric we need to project an image - particularly women that haven’t established themselves in their transition. The idealised image could be seen as the dream.

Trouble is, it isn’t. It’s just a basic case of internalised misogyny: women can objectify women, and transgender women that wish they could be that object are still objectifying women. Advertising it isn’t helpful. It actually exposes their misguided notions of womanhood, though their often desperate place in life forgives that. I certainly couldn’t claim to understand womanhood pre transition or even now. Womanhood, like manhood, is a thing that defies explanation. Individual and evolving. It’s easy to say what it isn’t, but difficult to say what it is.

"HER NOTIONS OF FEMININE ICONOGRAPHY AREN’T BEING EXPRESSED BY THIS TANKARD, EXCEPT THAT IT’S QUITE PRETTY AND CONFRONTS PEOPLE."

I suppose what makes the tankard OK to my mind is that the owner didn’t pick it as a statement about what women are or should be. She’s quite vocal about undermining categorical thinking regarding gender and sexuality. She’s one of the locals that I can throw a sour look to when someone tries to make anything I say about my gender. Her notions of feminine iconography aren’t being expressed by this tankard, except that it’s quite pretty and confronts people. The woman on the tankard isn’t being presented as an ideal. The women in the Barbie doll memes are.

The sticking point is the estimation of intent. I could be misjudging the ladies that post those memes. I haven’t confronted any of them about it, so I have no way of knowing. My reasons for not confronting them are largely to do with the context: they’re wrong, but they’re also in a difficult space. This is a release for them, and making their life more difficult than it already is creates a problem they don’t need. I’m an educator at heart - I understand how to triage information. Again, we have context informing the decision to confront. If and when I do confront them, I will have a better idea of their intent. Until I have a better idea, I object but keep it to myself (unless I find myself needing something to blog about - that’s a whole other thing).

The people that object to this tankard should consider confronting its owner and determining intent before deciding whether it’s offensive. Maybe they don’t appreciate it, but they might understand. There’s plenty that I don’t appreciate yet understand. I can disagree with a person’s choices while still understanding their intent. That’s the crux of the problem with confronting people: not everyone will seek information. This tankard, in itself, isn’t a problem. Who holds it and why is potentially a problem. The holders of confrontational objects need to understand that not everyone will bother to find out, just as we, as critics, need to understand that we are acting from a personal context that may not be relevant to the issue at hand.

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