Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

Better to enlighten minds than to turn heads

Hundreds of folks in Bethesda are fighting the fitness company that splashed a racy billboard across a corner of their neighborhood.

The offending ad shows a skinny woman on all fours, prowling atop a pool table. Right above the fancy new sandwich place.

It’s sexist, they say. It degrades women.

“Our children shouldn’t be subjected to this,” reads the petition circulating around Bethesda, asking the CEO of Equinox gym to kill the ad. “Our female friends and family shouldn’t be viewed like this, nor forced to conform to it. Our male partners and colleagues shouldn’t be boxed in to thinking this is normal. This is the kind of not-so-subtle sexism that infects our culture, and degrades an entire gender.”

I couldn’t agree more.

And I’m inspired. We need to scrub sexism from our streets.

Maybe John Ashcroft was on to something when he insisted on covering the nudie statues at the Department of Justice.

Every day when we walk from the Metro or go on an evening stroll, my children are subjected to a hypersexualized depiction of the human form, idealized bodies and full-frontal nudity.

Yet no one has spoken up about the raunchiness of that orgy known as Neptune’s Court, the fountain right outside the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill that looks like a scene from Hugh Hefner’s grotto.

Have you seen it?

Neptune sits high in the middle, flanked by Tritons, escorted by writhing nymphs straddling bucking sea horses. Everyone’s naked.

Yeah, I totally think book collections and patent archives when I see this display.

When my boys look at Neptune and his rippling Tritons, how are they supposed to feel about the expectations for their own bodies? What does this say about their own vision of masculinity and what it means to be a male today?

With its sexist art, the Library of Congress is telling boys it’s not okay to wear glasses, do the dishes and respect their own nerdy pursuits. Do they have to conform to be all cut and dominant, rolling with a posse of equally buff dudes and surrounded by naked women?

Not only does Neptune’s muscled maleness depict an unrealistic ideal of the male form (hello protein powder addiction, steroid habit?), but what about the exposed, um, nether parts on those three?

The size of those features, on a sculpture to celebrate the nation’s literary collection, is enough to make any male feel inadequate.

Water has been lapping at the Tritons’ exposed crotches and spraying on the sea nymphs’ bare chests for more than a century — and no one has uttered a word of protest.

The only controversy that accompanied the construction of the nation’s library in the 1890s was the type of cement used for the foundation, the style of the building and the breadth of the nation’s literary collection.

Weird.

Maybe, for 100 years, folks have looked past that fountain for more substantive ways to change society. They’ve seen it for what it is — art. Provocative, perhaps unseemly. But it’s not the only image their children will ever see.

My kids laugh at the Neptune fountain and feed the ducks that swim in it. They will learn about the many facets of masculinity from lots of people, including their father, their teacher at robotics camp, their taekwondo instructors, the uncle who needlepoints and fishes with them, the dads they see walking all around Capitol Hill with babies strapped to their chests.

The people who hate the Equinox billboard in Bethesda are correct — the ad is dumb. But the campaign is misplaced energy that looks more like censorship than feminism.

“Our daughters and sons walk by the billboard outside Equinox Gym every day. They see a woman in a degrading sexual position, being ‘celebrated’ for her hypersexualized and supposed dexterity, with a pool cue and balls. This is somehow meant to advertise for a fitness facility,” says the petition on Change.org, signed by at least 800 people as of Thursday.

But these daughters, if they check in on any media other than the local billboard, will see female athletes, politicians, war veterans, pilots, scientists, artists who are not stick-thin and compromised on a pool table.

Degrading women means legislation that dictates what happens to their bodies and their futures without their input. It means less pay for equal work. It means ignoring systemic, sexual abuse by superiors who treat offenses like a joke. It means a Congress that represents 51 percent of the population with less than 20 percent of its members.

A billboard? That’s the least of women’s problems.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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