The ‘sorry, not sorry for objectifying you’ is not good enough

An open letter to department of basic education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga.

Dear DBE spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga (and any other men who still need to hear this),

It has been a little over a week since your “boundary-pushing metaphoric digital campaign” launched on the 10th of August 2019, and I am dissatisfied. I am dissatisfied with your “sorry not sorry” apology, that reeks of an oxymoronic combination of righteous persecution and ignorant male privilege. I am dissatisfied with your inability to recognise why your campaign was wrong. Wrong to objectify women. Wrong in its understanding of contemporary audiences and their openness to sex and sexuality. Wrong in its use of metaphor and representation. Wrong in its meaning or intention. Wrong in its narrative. Wrong in its claim to push the boundaries or to try something new. Wrong in its perceived success of starting discourse around reading. Just wrong.

So, Mr Mhlanga, as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a sister and an advertising professional with more than a decade of experience, let me try to educate you:

1. Sex, Sexuality & Exploitation

Despite what you may think, the use of sex to sell is not a new notion that pushes the boundary. And I am sorry to inform you but you were not the first to think of it either. You come from a long line of sexist troglodytes who have exploited women’s bodies to sell stuff. As long as men have been selling their wares, women and their bodies have been used to “sweeten the deal”.

Although I must congratulate you, you do fall into a subcategory of men who have used women’s bodies and sex to sell – but to sell the most random and incongruent of products to be related to sex. I mean at least perfume, cigarettes, clothing, even food, have a vaguely discernible connection to sex.

American Apparel

American Apparel Advert from USA


Examples of advertising in the Women Not Objects campaign

But reading … I don’t know, my mind cannot make that jump. So you must be an advertising maverick to have made this connection. And this is why you join an elite group of men who have used sex and the objectification of women to sell shoe polish, milk, ovens and even potato crisps. Clearly, you all see something the rest of us don’t.

Regardless of your ability to link two completely disparate things – a desire for reading and semi-naked women – this “Read to Lead” campaign was not pushing any boundaries. This tactic is tried and tested. And it is a cheap approach, not an innovation. And it is definitely not creative to make reading sexy again by literally making your campaign “sexy”, using sexual imagery and language. What were you thinking? “I know sex is fun, let’s take sex and put a book in there somewhere and maybe people will believe reading is as much fun.”

That is an incredibly lazy way to use metaphor and build a narrative in communication, and I am afraid it is also embarrassingly obvious and juvenile. Like the kid in class who giggles behind his hand when the teacher says “vagina” when teaching sex and reproduction in Life Sciences.

However, I suggest you visit #WomenNotObjects to read their research paper and read some of the research and writings of activist Jean Kilbourne, as they, better than I, can explain all the reasons why objectifying women in any way, shape or form in advertising and media is not a good idea. It’s especially not a good idea from a government department whose entire reason for existing is to shape and enlighten young people’s minds – to help grow the future generations of South Africa’s society.

2. The difference between sex and sexuality in the 21st Century

Okay, so now that we have established that the use of sex and women’s bodies is not a new thing, nor is it an acceptable tactic (well at least not since the 1950s) and neither should it be the strategy of a brand aimed at the youth of South Africa, charged with educating this country’s future men and women, I want to move on to the part of your “apology” that dealt with your intricate insight into contemporary audiences and their openness around the topics of sex and sexuality.

First, let’s be clear there is a difference in meaning between sex and sexuality, one that is quite key to these “contemporary audiences” you mention. Sexuality is a common topic in today’s discourse but most often in relation to sexual orientation and the need for acceptance and tolerance thereof. So, please do not pretend you were leveraging a prolific and important theme to get people to reconsider their relationship with reading – we are not so easily fooled.

Secondly, yes, younger generations are more open about sex and being sexual, but that does not necessarily mean that the mere sight of a naked body, seductively posed, will make them fall all over themselves to buy into your message, and if they prove me wrong and do fall for any old cleavage shot, then ask yourself, Mr Mhlanga, is this the ethical thing to do? Is this the right thing to do? Is it a cheap tactic or is it valuable? I know you believe you were working for the greater good, but ask yourself at what cost? Are you willing to reinforce harmful stereotypes and marginalise women to drive an agenda of reading? Do those scales weigh up in your mind?

And then ask yourself, do you really think that you started a discourse about reading or was the conversation so focused on the naked bodies and your righteousness that reading and its importance was at best an afterthought?

3. The threat of the male gaze

I will give you a definition for this in case you have not read about it before. The male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer.

Elijah Mhlanga

#read2lead campaign tweets, 10/08/2019

Where were the women in your campaign? Aside from the obvious – naked and in plain sight. If your campaign intended to only encourage heterosexual men to read then perhaps you may have succeeded in getting a few to buy into your sales pitch. I can only assume that then your intention was never to encourage women to read, but rather to show what women are best at – look pretty and playing the role of plaything. Why would a woman need to be encouraged to read? That is not what will help her in life…

In a long list of reasons why this stunt of your’s was wrong, the worst wrong was that women were not considered a target audience to receive the important message about reading. Again, you may challenge me on this, and you are welcome to. But I cannot see any place for the inclusion of women in this campaign outside of their role as decoration.

Mr Mhlanga, are you implying that I am not worthy of the value that reading offers, that my daughter is not worthy, that all the young women in South Africa are not worthy? Are we not also in need of messages that encourage us to believe in progress? Are we not in need of images that show that we are more than just the label society has given us? Are we not entitled to see ourselves as more than just a sexual object?

And not to belabour the point too much, but showing women in this way has proven links to the prevalence of physical, emotional and sexual abuse of women in society. If you relegate us to nothing more than an attractive piece of meat whose value is tied to the pleasure of men, why would you expect us to be treated as if we are worth more than that?

In a country with disgustingly high levels of rape, abuse, and violence against women, again I ask was this worth it? Can you justify further endangering women in order to lamely drive an agenda of reading? Do those scales weigh up in your mind?

Now, I know you may be thinking – “OMG this woman is so extra. She is clearly hysterical. It was one little campaign. Just 3 tweets. It wasn’t so bad.”

And you may be right about all of that, and what you are absolutely right in thinking is that I am hysterical. I think I am entitled to be.

Because, Mr Mhlanga, all these little things, these little oopsies, they all add up, they all feed into the problem, little by little, year by year, until one day we as women are back where we started. We cannot afford to not fight, even when that fight seems petty. We have to challenge every time men, especially men in power (and sadly for us, you constitute a man in power), reinforce a harmful attitude, norm, belief, stereotype, representation of women. I am hysterical that it is 2019 and we are still fighting over why sexually objectifying women in media is problematic.

You see, Mr Mhlanga, I am hysterical or sensitive or triggered (or whatever other labels you want to apply to me) that I still can’t see an end to this fight and this makes me even more hysterical because I am not just fighting for myself, I am fighting for my daughter, who WILL NOT grow up in a world where she is seen and treated as nothing more than a pretty ornament or plaything.

She WILL grow up knowing her worth apart from her sex (gender and genitalia). She will know that she has value beyond her body but in her mind and her heart and her actions.

And she WILL GROW UP READING because that is the value of reading: it inspires a person, especially a young person, to believe there are no bounds to their potential. It broadens their horizons.

Since the one thing we can agree is #read2lead, here is some suggested reading for you, Mr Mhlanga:

  • “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
  • “How To Be a Woman” by Caitlin Moran
  • “Men Explain Things to Me” by Rebecca Solnit
  • “Feminism Is for Everybody” & “The Will to Change” by Bell Hooks
  • “Everyday Sexism” and “Misogynation” by Laura Bates
  • “Why Does Patriarchy Persist” by Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider
  • “Living a Feminist Life” by Sara Ahmed
  • “F is For Feminist” by Kim Collins
  • “Women After All” by Melvin Konner


Leigh Tayler (and I suspect womankind in general)

This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are not necessarily The Citizen’s.

Leigh TaylerLeigh Tayler is a writer, a Leo, a feminist, a fan of The Walking Dead, a lover of all things unicorn and nearly succumbs to rage strokes on the daily. Oh, and she also happens to be a mother to one small feral child. She wears her heart on her sleeve and invariably tells it like it is, the good the bad and the ugly. She juggles her writing, her family, her sanity in-between a demanding career in advertising. She has no shame in sharing her harebrained and high-strung anecdotes on her experience of motherhood, no sugar coating, no gloss, just her blunt truth with a healthy side order of sarcasm. Find her on her blog, The Ugly Truth of Being a Mom.

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