July 12, 2011

The New Brew Works Label Shows Why I Think the Clown Shoes Debate is Bizarre

With about a week passing since the Clown Shoes kerfuffle, debate is still raging - and with some surprisingly negative terms being thrown around. There's a debate going on over at Jeff Alworth's Beervana, where Jeff has made this surprisingly strong statement:
It's possible to take this discussion in a postmodern, third-wave-feminism direction and pose various questions about the nature of sexuality and agency. I absolutely guarantee that wasn't the intention of Clown Shoes. They knew there was a line dividing sexist and sexy and they danced across it with smirking delight, and in case anyone missed this act of transgression, they made the point clear in their text. I have no idea whether CEO Gregg Berman is sexist, but I do know he used these labels to draw attention--and sales--to his beer. Mission accomplished.
Perhaps he knows Berman (I certainly do not), but if he doesn't know Berman, and well... I think guaranteeing someone's intent is a bridge too far. Everyone involved in the creative process has said there was no intent to be derogatory, and so I think applying such strong terms like "sexist" to them is too strong.

Anyway, the other charge, which I find downright confusing, is that of racism, levelled by the original poster, Candice Alstrom, whose official statement has collected everything from thoughtful debate to silly comments about how the robot on the label is a stand-in for black people. Most of it, though, comes from this label (which, we'll recall, I loved):

No one has yet been able to explain to me how it is more racist to suggest that an angel might be of African or Latin or Asian descent, than it is to have an entire cultural history of angels being exclusively Caucasian.

There were some thoughtful comments left on this blog. One, by an anonymous contributor, suggested that she could understand how these labels would offend someone. Sure. Me too. They don't cross a line for me, but they could for someone. That's different from fostering a stereotype. The same commenter - like Alworth above - also suggested this brouhaha was caused - or at least invited - by Clown Shoes, who knew that provacative, sexist labels would draw attention.

As a general rule, I take people at their word unless I have reason to believe they are lying, so when Berman, the artists, and other people at CS insist they didn't want this, I have no reason not to believe them. Maybe Alworth does, but if so I think one has an obligation to share that, rather than just insist we know their intent better than they do. It's also worth noting that these labels aren't that new (and the hubbub is all in the last week), so one would have to suggest Berman et al. basically goaded Alstrom into her post, and then fed the media fire. I do not personally believe that happened, just on the principles of Occam's razor. Brady Walen's Crafted blog makes a nice point that, regardless of the intent, being polarizing is often good for business. However, commenter Matt points out that if you're all hype and no quality, no stunt will work for long.

The first commenter, Sud Savant, brought up a point I want to press on a little bit. His suggestion - with which I totally agree - is that it is very weird to focus on these labels when there are so many other, more sexist ones to which we could point. Sud suggests the macros (always an easy target for chauvinism), but one can do within our beloved craft beer, as well. One commenter on Alworth's post assured me there was lots of outrage, and all I can say is, as someone who's written about this specific niche for a year and change now, I've rarely heard it. Instead, one personal attack and some local media and it feels like everyone's going after the wrong person for the right reasons.

To demonstrate what I mean, I'm going to use a new example from an artist I like a lot, both personally and professionally, and it's from The Fegley's Brew Works, a brewery that used to be my local brewery:
I do like the use of a QR code. Also, that's not a knuckleball grip.
See what I mean?

If you're going to find a beer label offensive, degrading, sexist, or whatever, can we start with the thousands of obvious examples? This has a ridiculously figured blond-haired "woman" with cameltoe and enormous breasts pouring out of a stretched baseball outfit. Her measurements make Barbie look feasible. It is not poorly executed, but I think one can be forgiven for finding it a demeaning and even disgusting portrayal of women.

One could also say that it's just fun and games and I'm taking beer labels too seriously. I'd be up for that debate. In fact, I think that would be great for craft beer, to have a real debate about what is all in good fun and what is not. Instead, we have sanctimony fueled by personal grudges. Yes, I know that a woman can still produce sexist work, and the fact that there are worse things does not make bad things okay, but isn't it fair to ask why, when there are many, many, MANY labels like this showing up in craft beer, we are choosing to focus on one female artist who is drawing realistic women in a not-particularly-sexualized way?

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