By Dinah A. Spritzer
Sunday, September 25, 2005
Prague is hosting a photography exhibit that documents the sexually degrading ads that pervade the city. Women's rights activists say it's a chance to talk about a subject that receives little critical attention in the former Soviet bloc.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic (WOMENSENEWS)--A woman's cut-off torso, bound in leather, towers 50 feet above a heavily trafficked city street here.
For the thousands of people who pass the billboard of the giant, enslaved torso each day, her enormous and exposed cleavage blocks the view of the sky.
The image is not an advertisement for a pornographic magazine. It's for a bank in the center of the Czech capital city. "A beautiful woman is hard to guard," wording below the torso announces. "What about your money?"
The billboard is no longer just on view at this and other busy intersections. It is now also part of an exhibit that some think may be the first government-supported initiative in a formerly Soviet bloc country to combat sexually explicit advertising.
The exhibit, "In Our Faces: Visual Assault on the Streets of Prague," opened earlier this month in Prague's city hall in the same medieval building on the Old Town Square that houses the city's famous landmark astronomical clock.
The mayor's office donated the space for the exhibition, which includes about 50 large-scale photographs of sexually explicit advertising billboards and magazine covers that are highly visible throughout Prague.
"The exhibition is intended to draw attention to the degradation suffered by everyone--men, women and children--when they must constantly confront advertising that views the human body as a sexual tool for advertisers," said Suzanne Formanek, one of the exhibition's organizers. "These ads are all over Prague, but they are not tolerated in many other developed cities in the world."
The exhibit photographs portray not only the ads themselves, but the relationship of the public to the ads. They show passers-by, roller skaters and children eyeing naked bodies and suggestive captions.
"I guess I took these photographs as a way of fighting back," said Beth Lazroe, the Prague-based American photographer and university lecturer whose works are on display. "I think we all become so deadened to these pictures around us and it is becoming worse. We don't even know how it affects us, how it makes us feel about ourselves and about the worth of women."
Lazroe, who has lived in Prague for 10 years, said that she did not intend for her works to foist an American attitude onto Czech society. She said the idea for the exhibit came from Czech friends. "They encouraged me and they complain about the presence of these ads. They just thought there was nothing to be done about it," she said.
Prague authorities take the issue of sexually explicit advertising seriously, said Miroslav Sklenar, vice director of Prague City Hall. "If a problem is to be resolved, we first must become aware of its existence and this exhibition proves that Prague is aware of the problem."
Sklenar noted that the city had recently banned street advertising for its ubiquitous sex clubs, although some in the exhibition-opening crowd grumbled that the sex clubs, not their ads, are the problem.
Kristina Mikulova, a student in her second year at Prague's Charles University, glanced up from viewing photographs at the "In Our Faces" exhibition to say that the ads in which women's heads are cut off make her particularly angry.
"It's like the advertisers are telling us that what is in a woman's head doesn't matter," she said.
Mikulova was not optimistic about such ads disappearing anytime soon. "Women here, we are still getting used to the chance to get things, to buy things," she said. "We are more focused on ourselves and much less on what is around us."
The exhibition opening followed a Sept. 8 conference held in the upper floors of the gallery about the links between sexually explicit advertising and domestic violence, human trafficking and the overall lowering of the status of women in society.
A speaker, Branislava Vargova of the Prague-based domestic-violence support group, ROSA, led with a 1999 billboard ad for a racy tabloid that showed a woman's bare behind with several cuts in it. "Everyone likes a good spanking," read the tagline.
Vargova told conference attendees that such ads were typical in the Czech Republic and played into the stereotype that women like to be humiliated.
While reported incidents of domestic violence in the Czech Republic are along the lines of the European average--between 10 percent and 12 percent of women here are abused during the course of their lifetimes--Vargova said she was troubled by cases in which perpetrators specifically referenced their partners' shortcomings to the ideal portrayed in billboard advertisements.
"We had a case where a man would exhaust his wife by forcing her for hours to assume the positions of the women featured in all the ads," said Vargova. "In another instance, a man beat his wife because he said she did not act as sexy as the women he was now seeing on billboards."
Jirina Siklova, founder of the Gender Studies Center in Prague, an academic think tank and co-organizer of the conference, said that pornographic magazines and sexually explicit ads began cropping up in Prague only a few weeks after the demise of Communism in 1989.
"Everything coming from the West was connected to freedom and liberty for us," Siklova said. "We thought we were being modern and democratic by tolerating such things."
Petra Burcikova, director of the Czech branch of La Strada, a nongovernmental organization that assists victims of human trafficking, told conference attendees that the capitals of Western Europe are engines of advertising that use women and their bodies to sell products to men.
"It is clear that women's bodies, not men's, are used to sell everything from saws to cars and men are the target customers," Burcikova said.
But while the ads and magazines came pouring in from Western Europe, that region's culture of social protest and criticism did not follow.
Although women in Western Europe may have long campaigned against sexually explicit advertising, women in the former Soviet bloc had little experience with that or other gender-related issues.
A feeling of powerlessness amid offensive advertising is typical of former Soviet bloc countries, gender analysts here say, since active social resistance was prevented during Communism's four-decade rule.
"What is tolerated in our region would never be accepted by women or even society in the West," said Pavla Jonssonova, a professor of gender studies at Prague's Anglo-American College.
For instance, in 2001 Nokia ran a billboard promoting a hands-free device to Czechs that featured a cartoon illustration of a man in a car attacking the breasts of a woman with both hands as she screamed. The phone was cradled on the dashboard. "Free Hands!" read the caption.
The Gender Studies Center, a nonprofit think tank based in Prague, complained to Nokia's Czech office, which ignored the objection. But once people from the center contacted Nokia's head office in Espoo, Finland, managers there they said they were appalled.
The ad was promptly taken down.
Dinah A. Spritzer is editor of The Prague Daily Monitor, the Czech Republic's electronic English-language newspaper. She contributes to numerous publications such as The New York Times, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency and The Irish Examiner.
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