Everyday Misogyny: What’s wrong with Air New Zealand’s Swimsuit Safety Video?


1 March 2014 by thaliakr

Update: I’ve been getting my complain on! For my early correspondence with Air New Zealand and the Advertising Standards Authority, click through to this update, and for Air New Zealand’s flabbergasting response to my ASA complaint, head here.

I wrote most of this post a few days ago on a plane. I was flying home from a meeting that included tackling the marginalisation of women preachers in New Zealand. It was quite a day.

Judith Collins MP will tell you she wasn’t offended by Air New Zealand’s newest safety video, featuring bikini-clad models instead of flight attendants telling passengers what to do in an emergency.

I wasn’t offended so much as appalled and slightly disoriented. Here are six reasons why.

objectification of women, Air New Zealand's sexist safety video, everyday sexism, feminist parenting

Air New Zealand has a fun tradition of luring you to watch the safety briefing you may have seen dozens of times before. Over the last few years they’ve produced a bunch of different themed safety videos for the planes with screens.

This morning I got the latest Hobbit one. It’s a fun time. I didn’t care much for the first Hobbit movie itself (especially that ghastly higher frame rate version) but I’m all for having flight attendants dressed as elves telling me ‘a tale of safety’ while hobbits and dwarves demonstrate the brace position.

Peter Jackson and several of his actors give cameos and the flight captain strokes his long beard and ends the presentation by telling his crew to ‘Fly, you fools!’

Flying is great for keeping up with small doses of pop culture. While I was waiting to board a plane last week I saw (on breakfast TV ‘news’) Judith Collins’ approval of the newest video, though I hadn’t seen the video itself. That time I was headed for a plane too small for video screens. We had the normal live crew choreography instead.

When the old hobbits and elves turned up on this morning’s big plane, with screens on every seat-back, I wondered if Air New Zealand had pulled the new one, but apparently not. On the return flight I got regaled with this bizarre mix of Pacific culture and American product placement.

Screen Shot 2014-03-01 at 4.43.46 pm

This time the flight attendants told us with excitement that it was – gasp! – the 50th anniversary of the first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition! So let’s go to Aitutaki in the Cook Islands and have models in bikinis distract the locals in their waka, flick their hair around their lifejackets and, well, simper a lot.

If you were to mention in a mixed gathering – your office morning tea gathering or, heaven forbid, Facebook – that you were surprised that in 2014, the national airline was using scantily-clad Americans to demonstrate the safety features of the aircraft, there must be a version of Godwin’s Law to predict how many minutes over coffee or comments in a thread before someone says that ‘this is political correctness gone mad!’

It’s not pornography on a billboard and it’s not Grand Theft Auto in a kindergarten – I’m not suggesting it was terribly explicit or R18 – but things don’t need to be overwhelmingly evil to be worth protesting about.

Here are six reasons Air New Zealand should ditch the latest video and stick with hobbits.

1: It’s compulsory to watch

As someone tells us every time we fly in New Zealand, ‘Civil Aviation rules require you to comply with all crew instructions and lighted signs.’ I can choose not to buy or ‘read’ Playboy or FHM but I can’t choose to avoid this video.

That makes it more invasive and disorienting than seeing a sexist billboard from the motorway or an explicit programme on television. I can’t think of any other media that people are forced to watch. I can’t think of any other public situation where a piece of advertising more at home in the sexist 1970s would be thought appropriate.

I can’t avoid this video, but more importantly for me, I also can’t prevent my son or yours from seeing it next time he flies.

I’m trying my best to raise a boy, and one day, a young man, who understands at his core that girls and women are full human beings with a great deal to offer that isn’t measured in cup sizes. Of course I can’t shield him from all misogyny, and whenever he is confronted with this crap, I hope we will critique it together, but I’d rather he weren’t forced to watch it in order to be safe in an air crash.

There are also, presumably, several people on the flight right now who struggle with addiction to pornography or who would just rather not be sexually aroused in the company of strangers. It doesn’t seem kind to show them lots of pretty boobs whenever they fly.

This video also might make my breastfed son hungry.

2: Why are we celebrating this ‘anniversary’?

I left for Auckland this morning from an airport that has renamed its city ‘the Middle of Middle-Earth’, presumably for the duration of Peter Jackson’s love affair with Tolkien.

New Zealand has made an enormous amount of money, and had a lot of fun, doubling as Middle-Earth for half a dozen movies (so far…). It’s cute that Air New Zealand would cosy up with Peter Jackson and make a hobbit themed video.

I’m genuinely mystified as to why Air New Zealand wanted to celebrate the long history of Sports Illustrated’s objectification of women. What kind of money has changed hands to manufacture this excitement?

The video opens with one flight attendant saying how Air New Zealand loves flying people to the Cook Islands. ‘Coincidentally,’ says the second crew member, ‘it’s also the 50th anniversary of the world-famous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.’

Actually, that’s not a coincidence, it’s just two things side by side. As my sister said, they’re just saying ‘Here’s a thing in the world! It’s related to another thing that’s in the world. Because they’re both… in the world!’

3: Yes, swimsuit shoots are about objectifying women

The women recruited to star in this video are all hardworking professionals, presumably making a fair amount of money from modelling. I don’t want to deny them agency and call them victims.

The victims are the rest of us, male and female, who suffer from the normalisation of ogling at women’s bodies and judging women’s worth by the state of their mammary tissue.

This shoot objectified these women (perhaps with their consent) and it supports the objectifying of all women.

What do I mean by ‘objectifying’ and why is it a problem?

There’s a beauty bias in us all that means good-looking people have more success (financial, social, career, and more) in life than bad-looking people. Economists call it the ‘beauty premium.’ If your parents ever tried to tell you that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, they were describing what should be true, according to rationality and most morality, but what isn’t.

This will continue to be untrue the more we say it’s normal and ok to elevate people’s physical attributes above their characters, intellects, talents and inherent human worth. All these latter things are more important to the human race than beauty.

Beauty is a lovely thing, a visual perk of the human mind, but it’s not more important than goodness.

4: Women’s sport has nothing to do with bikinis

It’s bad enough that the video was all about modelling swimsuits – or rather, showing off women’s bodies – but it’s worse to pretend this has anything to do with actual swimming, or any other kind of sport.

No one could win the 200m backstroke in these swimsuits.

Women’s sport is marginalised enough as it is. For example, the New Zealand women’s rugby team, the Black Ferns (they can’t even get a nickname without deriving it from the more popular men’s rugby and women’s netball teams) have won all four World Cups from 1998 to 2010, being virtually unbeaten for their entire history of existence.

Here’s what the Wikipedia entry for the Black Ferns says about support for the team:

While rugby is the most popular spectator game in New Zealand, the Black Ferns have suffered in the past from similar problems to any women’s sport—under-funding, lack of support and lack of publicity. The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) and IRB have been criticised for not doing more to promote women’s rugby, although support is beginning to build in those organisations. The NZRU started funding the Black Ferns in 1995, thus giving a great boost to their game. Accordingly the Black Ferns have benefitted from being included in NZRU High Performance initiatives. Along with professional coaches the team has had access to professional development resources such as analysis.

In January 2010 NZRU announced that the National Provincial Competition (NPC) will have to go due to budget cuts… NZRU said women’s domestic rugby is one of many victims of the tight financial times.

[Read more at Wikipedia.]

It doesn’t help the cause of women’s sport to have the most high-profile issue of Sports Illustrated devoted to modelling. I’d be interested to hear from any sporty women: what do you think about this?

Sports Illustrated isn’t generally on my reading list anyway, Swimsuit Edition or any other edition. I just headed to their homepage to see if, in their normal editions, they actually cover women doing, you know, sport. Nope. Only modelling:

Sports Illustrated homepage screenshot, sexism in Sports Illustrated, feminist parenting, objectification of women, marginalisation of women in sport

So again: why exactly is this magazine worthy of five minutes of every passenger’s time, while we’re supposed to be stowing our tray-tables?

5: The Cook Islands are pretty gorgeous without the models

The video is set in the Cook Islands, where Air New Zealand wants you to fly for a holiday.

Cook Islands tourism

In what is in fact a fairly traditional, sexually conservative culture, it seems at least odd and at worst exploitative and offensive, to choose to advertise tourism there by having Western women model scanty swimsuits.

6: Is it only straight men who fly with Air New Zealand?

I’m happy to be corrected by any gay women who feel well served by this ad, but I feel fairly sure the main target audience for this video is straight men. Are they the only ones who need to be safe in a crash?

When I saw the first group of bikini-clad women on the beach in this video – having expected more hobbits and elves – I let out an involuntary ‘Are you kidding me?!’ The middle-aged woman sitting in the same row looked over at me and rolled her eyes in solidarity. Air New Zealand didn’t make this video for either of us to enjoy.

objectification of women, Air New Zealand's sexist safety video, everyday sexism, feminist parenting

Sitting in a confined space with a compulsorily fastened seatbelt and video screens operating without any control from viewers: this is a very weird situation to encounter a lengthy tribute to an American magazine that makes a vast amount of money from paying women to undress for the camera.

Between the annoyed people like me and the randy fans of the Swimsuit Safety video, I’m not sure anyone was paying much attention to the position of the emergency exits.

Update: I’ve been getting my complain on! For my correspondence with Air New Zealand and the Advertising Standards Authority so far, click through to this update.

You can also follow debate on Twitter, using the #everydaysexism and Lucy’s #sexisminparadise hashtags. Follow me on Twitter here, and say hi!


16 thoughts on “Everyday Misogyny: What’s wrong with Air New Zealand’s Swimsuit Safety Video?

  1. AndyM says:

    So except for guys who have a problem with lust, AirNZ have managed to alienate pretty much everyone, while distracting anyone who watches the video from the core safety issues of the video.

    • Yeah, I think there’s a fine line between engaging your audience so they actually watch the video and distracting them so they don’t take in any message about safety!

  2. Penny says:

    I too, am horrified by Air NZ’s choice. They have always been a favourite and I’ve always been happy to promote them to friends and family overseas…. though I’m less keen now. Thank you for your carefully considered blog. I just thought you may wish to look at the advertising appearing beneath your words. In particular ‘Women Only: New tip how to lose a massive amount’ accompanied by a picture of sports bra top and abs. A similar advert appears beneath that – two of four on the page. I’m not suggesting it’s your fault – only that the issue pervades all media – and that’s sad.

    • Oh dear! WordPress has the right occasionally to put ads at the bottom of posts, but they rotate, I think, and I don’t actually see them (they only show for people who aren’t logged-in WP users). That’s not the first time that it’s been eye-rollingly unapposite… Guess I really need to upgrade to an ad-free version!

      Thanks for your kind words and careful reading!

  3. carolgreenie says:

    Thank you for a great read – articulates all the reasons I’m not at all happy about this video. I was also trying to think of an appropriate protest response that could be performed if I had the misfortune to be required to watch this, which would also not get me thrown off the flight.

  4. Andy says:

    Over here in australia the whole concept of “misogyny” has been undermined by its use by Julia Gillard. In the thick of a debate last year she accused Tony Abbott of it. The supreme irony was that the context of the debate was Ms Gillard defending the speaker of misconduct (namely very offensive and graphic and completely inappropriate descriptors of women), while the man she called out as a misogynist was just holding her to the same level of scrutiny of her performance as a prime minister as would be expected of any man.

    • Andy says:

      It’s a pity, as there are areas of public life where women do get a rougher ride than men, and that’s not on, but Ms Gillard used it as a way of deflecting attetion away from herself.

      • Andy, I think I have to disagree with you there, while acknowledging that as a resident of Australia you have a fuller picture of things.

        I follow Australian news and politics, and I saw the famous Gillard speech. The specific examples she cited – whatever her own track record or personal virtue – were clear examples of misogyny. Standing in front of signs that say ‘ditch the witch’ and ‘a man’s bitch’? That is gender-based vitriol, even if it’s being done to score political points (like the Air New Zealand ad is being sexist, not because they want to hate women, but because they want to make money).

        Here’s a quote from an article at the time: (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/09/julia-gillard-tackle-sexism)

        Gillard went on to list a series of sexist and misogynistic remarks made by Abbott himself – from questioning whether it’s a bad thing that men have more power than women to explaining a new carbon pricing scheme with the words “what the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing …”.

        Truly and honestly, that is misogyny. I’m not defending Gillard or saying anything about her at all, except that she accurately describes misogyny in this speech.

  5. Tracey says:

    Because, apparently, Sports Illustrated 50th swimsuit issue is VERY important to A LOT of New Zealanders…

    I am hopeful that by the time I fly Air NZ with my family again, they will not be playing this video any more.

  6. […] I wrote this post about why I thought the video was a problem, I linked to it on the Air New Zealand Facebook page, and have had no response from […]

  7. Kaz says:

    Great read and I googled ‘I hate Air NZ latest safety video’ to find you,. I am a professional woman working for a Government organisation and travel most weeks and I swear I get angrier and angrer each time I have to sit through this god awful video! Especially as I travel a lot with my male colleagues and even they give me pitying looks. I have also managed to catch the eye of several of the female crew while its play and shake my head, the very carefully smile and nod in response. Its just horrible!

  8. […] video isn’t pornography, and I’m not suggesting that it is. But as I said in my original post (and my complaint), things don’t need to be terrible before we object. The video is part of […]

  9. Thank you for discussing this issue so articulately! You highlight the issues with great clarity :)

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