I don’t even know where to begin with this.
A friend of mine brought this to my attention on Facebook. Tesco, the supermarket giant in the UK, has apologized recently for the resulting ‘PR disaster’ after adverts for its inflatable ‘g*y best friend’ doll appeared online at tescodirect.com. The ‘toy’, which the website claimed was an “amusing gift”, was accompanied with the description “if Sex in the City and Will & Grace taught us anything, it’s that g*y best friends are in this season. We’ve had the manbag, we’ve had leg warmers and iPhone fever, now it’s time for the new craze.”
WELL. Quite APART from the fact that it’s downright offensive (as well as lazy) to group gays into one stereotypical handbag-toting, advice-giving, fashion-following tribe, it’s that asterisk in the word ‘gay’ that’s caused so much controversy.
It’s a troubling censorship that’s met with furious criticism from LGBT groups, among them Stonewall, for inferring that ‘gay’ is an offensive word akin to a curse word. Tesco has apologized but the question still remains: why did the advertisers feel the need to censor the word gay in the first place?
Consider this: Tesco is the UK’s biggest retailer, and the UK provides one of the highest degrees of liberty in the world for its LGBT citizens – Wikipedia tells us that “In ILGA-Europe’s 2013 review of LGBTI rights, the UK received the highest score in Europe, with 77% progress toward “respect of human rights and full equality.” The UK is leading the field in LGBT equality on paper, so Tesco’s insinuation that ‘gay’ is an insulting term deserving of censorship leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
Tesco’s censorship reminds us unpleasantly of schoolyard exchanges, where “that’s gay” is used frequently and flippantly as a negative denominator. Most people grow out of this lazy substitution, or come to realize its implications and find a more appropriate way of expressing themselves. By censoring gay as ‘g*y’, Tesco is reinforcing the idea that it’s ok to use ‘gay’ as a negative signifier – in much the same way that ‘b*tch’ receives the same asterisk treatment. By placing an asterisk in ‘gay’, Tesco equates the word to be as derogatory as ‘bitch’, and that’s an intolerant and unacceptable message for the UK’s most high profile retailer to send. Gay is not a dirty word.
What made me (and many others) even more furious is the description of the toy. Apparently gay best friends are ‘in this season’ and a ‘new craze’. It’s disgusting that a gay friend (or indeed a gay person) is depicted as a fashion accessory, one who is disposable and equivalent to a passing fad. The type dehumanizes the gay community by comparing them to materialistic things and suggests that your (by extension, a ‘normal’, heterosexual persons) friendship with them is brief, insubstantial, and a bit of fun. I can’t help but imagine the backlash there’d have been if Tesco had launched an inflatable ‘black best friend’. The accompanying description may have been intended as tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted – but it’s sloppy and careless at best, horribly offensive at worst. This kind of lazy stereotyping is what we’re trying to eradicate, not enforce. LGBT rights are not ones to be taken lightly, and products like the above aren’t just a bit of fun.
I have to say though, I love Stonewall’s Chief Executive Ben Summerskill’s response to the product itself. He said “This is like trying to sell ice to Eskimos. We can’t imagine why any woman would choose to buy an inflatable gay best friend when there are two million of the real thing already available in modern Britain and most of them are much better looking than Tesco’s pale imitation.”