For those of you who missed it (presumably because you’re too gainfully employed to fart about on social media all day), FHM South Africa recently found itself at the centre of a veritable Twitter storm surrounding two of its writers, a screenshot from a ‘private’ Facebook conversation and a series of tasteless jokes about corrective rape. But what can we learn from the ensuing teacup storm?
I won’t bother to repeat the comments as they were a) puerile and b) not funny, and the writers in question, Max Barashenkov and Montle Moorosi, are known for their abrasive – which is a polite way of saying juvenile and wilfully offensive – styles.
What’s interesting about this issue is not that a pair of jockish dudes engaged in some nasty banter in a space where they thought they could get away with it, or even that an upstanding citizen decided to share their classy commentary with the world, but rather the responses to the debacle. First came the predictable Twitter assault. Don’t get me wrong, a Twitter assault can be a good thing; sometimes the only way to point out idiocy to idiots is to tell them really loudly, and en masse, that they’re not funny. Subsequently to the spike in angry #FHMSouthAfrica hashtags, the magazine decided to respond.
First Barashenkov and Moroosi were relieved of their respective positions (way to keep the feminists happy, FHM!), then a tweet was posted stating that the comments were ‘indefensible’, after which the editor, Brendan Cooper, decided to wade in personally. He told City Press, ‘FHM was horrified to learn of the incredibly offensive comments made by two of our staff members on their private Facebook pages. These comments in no way reflect FHM‘s values. The opinions expressed are hurtful and deeply offensive and entirely unacceptable to FHM‘s management,’ adding the caveat, ‘They’re actually nice boys. But having these comments linked to my brand [has] me absolutely furious.’
What can we learn from this? First, despite its not insignificant income the South African publishing industry is so embarrassingly gauche that admitting to being a brand is still considered cool. Stealth marketing has a long way to go in this country. Second, FHM has never heard of hypocrisy. We’re talking about a magazine that’s obsessed with the depiction of (appropriately attractive) females as pouting, posing, bosom-clutching, arse-shaking, lip-licking receptacles of the imaginary sex juices of its audience. I am confused as to how stupid comments about rape are unacceptable to FHM’s management when the things that are acceptable to FHM’s management include an A-Z of sex involving tips for teaching a fellatio ‘novice’ to control her ‘gag reflex’ and advice to check your girlfriend for signs of ‘bunny boiling’ before you convince her to dress up as your fantasy dominatrix. And let’s not forget that ever-present entry to the list, particularly pertinent to the current case: ‘Lesbians: We love ’em. Could watch their movies for hours.’
These are FHM’s values. This is a magazine that can’t be in the same room as a woman without thinking ‘mmmm, boobies’ in a Homer Simpson voice. It seems to me that Moroosi and Barashenkov’s corrective rape jokes are perfectly in keeping with the ethos of a publication that thinks same-sex female desire is what saucy minxes do to give the slobbering masses something to, er, think about. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that FHM, with its website, marketing tools and national readership, may be more responsible for promoting a culture that treats women like packaged meat products than a series of private, if tasteless, Facebook comments. The idea of FHM as a defender of women’s rights is nothing short of laughable.
Alongside this woefully unsubtle bandwagon-jumping, what’s notable is the way that Cooper and FHM have dived into one of the great hobbies of our age: the faux outrage that is both propagated and made possible by the internet. While it may be the case that a response was necessary to protect the much-vaunted ‘brand’, the tenor of that response, as well as the extent of the coverage, is enormously telling as to how we as a society react to issues that are categorised as ethical.
The news outlets that covered this story have given it far more space than they habitually do to actual instances of corrective rape, or indeed of any violence against women, barring unusually shocking cases or those involving celebrities. Many people on Twitter responded thoughtfully, pointing out the legitimate problems with the original conversation, but others called for Moroosi and Barashenkov to be beheaded in a public orgy of moral smugness. I wonder whether all of these people, like Cooper, are legitimately interested in the safety of women, particularly the gay black women against whom this form of rape is most often perpetrated. I would wager that most of the reporters, tweeters, news consumers and office discussants who’ve fuelled this particular media event are getting off on the thrill of disgust, the frisson of being right when someone else is clearly wrong. They’re all going wonky on the thin air of the moral high ground.
Making stupid jokes about serious issues that badly affect other people is not a good habit. But neither is getting righteously upset about those jokes when you don’t give a damn about the issues the rest of the time, and using your response to situate yourself, or your publication, on the side of Right, at least for the 20 minutes it takes for you to forget it ever happened. To put this in terms that FHM might understand, it’s outrage porn, and we’re immersed in it. DM
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Nicky Falkof is a senior lecturer in the Media Studies department at Wits. She's recently returned to South Africa after almost 14 years of living mostly in the UK, during which time she was, variously, a journalist, author, student, semi-professional feminist, radio pundit and singer in a Yiddish reggae band. She tweets (infrequently) as @barbrastrident.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon