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20 février 06

The browser, the geek and the garter belt.

So we’re having a honest-to-god sexism spat in the French geekosphere. It’s all about “Femfox”, an unofficial advertising campaign for the Firefox browser, launched by an amateur model, a photographer and an IT guy. All glamour shots, the kind people in France are used to seeing in underwear ads.

The real brouhaha started only when Tristan Nitot, the president of Mozilla Europe, posted an “oh wow” (personal) endorsement of the campaign while at the same time, rather passive-aggressively, trying to pre-empt criticism by ridiculing the feminists he knew would object. He also implied that criticising the use of pictures of a nude and sexy woman to promote Firefox would amount to endorsing the current madness over the Mahomet cartoons. (You will find links to the Femfox site & photographs inside Tristan’s post.)

Let’s be clear, Firefox is and remains my browser of choice, and Tristan and Mozilla Europe have done and are doing impressive work that benefits the public at large. Still, the can of worms titled “women and free software” has been opened, and personally I find this invigorating and salutary.

It might seem strange that this is happening now, when we all have just been through a united call to arms for the right of a blogger to post pictures of lightly clad men. Indeed, I don’t believe that the issue is about the pictures at all, or even the garter belt, stockings, lacy knickers and heels. I know what kind of physical attributes I’m attracted to—though the physical component is but a small part of attraction—and am able to recognise and appreciate eroticism. I like erotic pictures and have written erotic stories and poems myself1.

No, to me, the problem is laid out along an entirely different axis. It’s about making a particular type of heterosexual male gaze directed towards conventionally attractive female attributes the norm, via using it, and the object of the attention, to incite people to do something entirely unrelated to eroticism and female bodies: use a particular web browser. The relationship between the viewer and the image loses its intimacy when the photographs (and the lecherous slogans that go with them) become a means to an end and play into the all too well-known stereotypes of the woman as seductress, sexual object or, at best, eye-candy.

And then there’s the body-image angle. Yves, as far as I can tell the only straight man on the anti-side, reports that his six year old daughter recently declared she’d give up butter on her bread “because it makes you fat”. Where might she and her playground comrades have picked up the idea? Here for example.

What’s I hope salutary about this spat is that it throws wide open the question of sexism in the largely male geek world. There has been a precedent—what to think of a young woman, one of far too few, auctioning off her T-shirt to the cheers of the male geek crowd for a fund-raiser during the recent Solutions Linux trade fair? Kozlika rightly grumbled then, under the title “If [we are supposed to promote free software] with the same weapons [mainstream marketing uses]—no, thanks”. Now, she tackles the thankless but salutary task of reformatting the talking points every feminist is familiar with for the consumption of the unenlightened male geek: no, feminists aren’t humourless, frigid, castrating crones; no, the model being more than consenting is absolutely immaterial (feminists aren’t supposed to disagree with women? huh, what an idiotic idea); and calling criticism of the ad campaign “the strait-jacket of all-crushing political correctness” is a ridiculously over-the-top attack, given what the power relations and dominant imagery really are.

I wonder if we should thank the Femfox team to have provided this opportunity for debate. Well, okay, rather not.


1 Though the photos in question aren’t what I’d call a particularly positive example of the genre. They are amateurish, run-of-the-mill shots focussing on decontextualised body parts. As for me, the face (and the smile) is a major part of connecting to the image.


  1. libre fan :: 26 mai, 09:47 :: # ::

    Many thanks for your highly readable article.

    As a member of the SpreadFirefox community I’ve been interested in the debate about glamorous Foxy launched by the author of FemFox.

    Unfortunately as you point out there’s nothing original in the pictures even if they would be more acceptable than most as underwear ads. As you rightly say it’s the same male gaze again even if the model is also the author of the campaign.

    A better idea, perhaps, would be to show pictures of some women actually using Firefox—this would be an incentive to follow the example for both women and men.

    Moreover I think kids and young adults ought to be a special target for the Spread Firefox campaign. In my country, France, most of them think IE, M$, MSM are the top because that’s all they ever hear of—They think Firefox or Linux are for old biddies and old sticks-in-the mud because free software isn’t sold in superstores or advertised on TV. They want to have what everybody has. I think the Firefox logo is very appealing to all—though nothing can beat Mozilla, in my view!


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