It was a bright but chilly autumn morning when I arrived outside a high school in South London, braced to spend a morning with a rambunctious group of teenage boys.
In my day job, I’m a contract manager for a tech company, but I volunteer to run workshops on masculinity and gender for the Great Men Project. The kids are bright and enthusiastic — and very often surprising.
School security led us through the labyrinthine corridors of the modern school building. Seventy male students had been split into smaller groups, and my co-worker Ben and I were delivered to a neat if somewhat charmless classroom to meet our group of 16 boys.
An hour later, we were deep into the three-hour session and discussing some provocative adverts we’d pulled up on a large screen. We asked the boys to guess what the ad was selling. There was a short pause as the boys considered what they were looking at.
“What are they comparing women to in this advert?” Ben asked one boy.
“And what do you do after you’ve bought your drink?”
“And when you’ve finished with it?”
“Throw it in the b…”
He gasped with realization, stopped mid-sentence, and rocked back in his chair, hands clamped over his mouth. The other boys finished his sentence for him, and the reaction swept the room like a wave at a football stadium.
“You can’t say that about women!” one of them shrieked. “It’s out of order.”
The ad they were looking at is by clothing company Red Tape, which has a habit of making highly stylized and blatantly sexist ads. Most of these young men initially thought it was promoting a soft drink (thanks to appropriation of Coke’s branding) — but they understood the true message of the ad straight away: Wear our clothes and you can have your pick of beautiful women.
“They think we’re stupid,” one of the boys said. “It’s like that Lynx advert with the women falling from the sky.”
We asked them what the advert says about women. “That they’ll have sex with you because of your clothes,” said one boy.
Another picked up on the “live your fantasy” tagline, asking who, exactly, decided those women were “fantasy women.”
“They all look the same,” he said. “They’re all skinny, and they’re all white.”