Political posters and advertisements offer many insights into the personality of a campaign. As a feminist scholar, my interest in these connects to gender representation. In a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, gender is an inevitable feature of campaign materials on both sides. One particular advertisement from the No campaign piques my intellectual interest.
The full-page ad in The Daily Star by Save the 8th depicts a soldier holding a child, with the statements, “Men Protect Lives”, “Children expect to be protected” and “Vote no to abortion on demand.” The “bye bye daddies” of Ireland’s 1995 divorce referendum are conscripted as baby-defending soldiers. The earlier caricature of Irish masculinity was defined by abandonment of wives and children en masse. Now reprogrammed, their mission if they choose to accept it: keep the uteruses of Ireland in line and protect the unborn from women. The ad is a peculiar mix of misogyny and misandry, visibly cutting women out of the debate regarding their own reproductive rights and operating on the assumption that an image that taps into stereotypical hetero-male ideals will be enough to convert their yes votes to a militant no.
The choice of a soldier is fascinating considering how traditional masculinity is often represented, and even mythologised. To elaborate, I once taught an undergraduate seminar on contemporary American literature. One section focused on Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. The novel follows two young cowboys as they embark on a coming-of-age journey across the U.S-Mexico border.
Key themes include traditional American masculinity, particularly the almost mythological figure of the cowboy in early and mid-twentieth century American culture. At the time the Marlboro Man was the guy every man wanted to be and every woman wanted to be with. We also discussed the tension between the figures of the cowboy and the astronaut in American culture; one symbolises the values of the old West, and the other, industrial progress. America’s quest to develop a new mythology entrenched in a history of whiteness was bound up in its notions about what makes an American man manly. Both are heroes who lead America into new frontiers, be they across the prairies or galaxies far far away.
Toy Story’s (1995) characters, Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear showcase these nostalgic ideas about masculinity. In the microcosm of a little boy’s bedroom, they lock horns to retain retain control of this childhood frontier.
Another minor character in the movie who symbolises a certain set of traditional male values – to protect and serve – is Combat Carl, a G. I. Joe-inspired action hero. While he received only a supporting role in Toy Story, Save the 8th have chosen an action man as their main Irish hero, sending him into a full-page battle against women’s bodily autonomy.
Presumably Save the 8th considered what kind of image would best appeal to Irish men. What would appeal most to the sensibilities of the average Irish male? Who did little Irish boys want to be when they grew up? We don’t have cowboys galloping through the West of Ireland. Our current astronaut of note is Dr Norah Patten, the wrong gender for their campaign. Priests, although ubiquitous in the landscape of Irish debates and histories of women’s and children’s rights, would be the wrong choice for this particular narrative. They belong in the gingerbread houses of any new Irish myths or fairy tales.
It seems that the women of Ireland leave Save the 8th no choice but to unleash a metaphorical army on us. The artist Barbara Kruger was right when she told us that our bodies are battlegrounds. Kruger designed the artwork, Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) (1989) for the Women’s March on Washington in response to a spate of anti-choice laws designed to breakdown Roe v. Wade. The silkscreen combines the disembodied face of a woman split down the middle and spliced horizontally with the words, “Your body is a battleground.” One side of the face is in positive exposure and the other is negative exposure, a division that symbolises the tug of war over women’s reproductive choice. The large white text against a red background evokes a tabloid newspaper headline. The piece is successfully highlights the media circus that ensues when issues like abortion and reproductive rights become topics of public debate. Our bodies get carved up on paper and online, and meanwhile 10 women per day still travel and 2 more take pills illegally and in secret.
Kruger once said that “there is an accessibility to pictures and words that we have learned to read very fluently through advertising and through the technological development of photography and film and video.” What does this mean for images like the “Men Protect Lives” ad? The combination of words and image suggests that men should mobilise in a call to arms against the threat of women’s rights. The spoils of war are the contents of their wombs. Martial law trumps maternal autonomy and a woman’s right to choose.
According to Women’s Aid, a 2014 study by the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) called entitled ‘Violence against women: An EU-wide survey‘ found that 14% of women in Ireland have experienced physical violence by a partner since age 15. 6% of Irish women have experienced sexual violence by a current or former partner and 31% of women have experienced psychological violence by a partner. 12% of Irish respondents in the FRA study had experienced stalking. The FRA survey revealed that Ireland has the second highest number of women avoiding places or situations for fear of being assaulted out of all EU countries. One in three women experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes, including physical, psychological and/or sexual violence.
The implication of the “Men Protect Lives” ad, if it were taken seriously (I truly believe the majority of men in Ireland know better), is a dangerous one considering these statistics. The media fluency identified by Kruger does not necessarily lead to media memory. One can hope that men in Ireland will see the connection between their depiction in the divorce referendum and the current one, and strive for attitudes to women that have more dimensions than the flat, vapid ones that no campaigners put on paper.