Monday, 30 May 2011

Hooters, bikini contests, boob cakes and licensing

Members of Bristol Feminist Network and Bristol Fawcett have drafted a letter to go to the council complaining about potential breaches of Hooters’ license conditions. You can sign the letter here:, but here’s a bit of info about how Hooters have been laughing at their license restrictions, and why their curious brand of ‘family friendly’ sexism is harmful to women and men.

This post contains lines and phrases from that letter so is a collaborative effort.

On Wednesday, 11 May, the Hooters “restaurant” on Bristol’s historic Harbourside held its inaugural bikini contest: whereby its young, female staff dressed in swimwear and high heels to be judged who the “diners” perceived to be the most “sexy”, according to our current culture's narrow definition of “sexiness”. This event, which encourages the view that women should perform as sex objects for a (presumed) male audience, began at 7pm.

In the heavily contested license application in August 2010, Hooters’ lawyers were at pains to state there would be no such sex entertainment events, and that they wanted the restaurant to be more up-market than some of the others in its self-styled “tacky” chain (which, it should be noted, is referred to as a “breastaurant” by its own lawyers). In fact, the licensing committee were assured by the Hooters' lawyers that bikini contests and wet t-shirt competitions would not form part of the restaurant's activities. Instead, Hooters was presented as family friendly, with the entertainment on show being sports related.
However, by hosting a bikini contest, Hooters were offering semi nudity and sexual entertainment. By treating women as sex objects for the male gaze, Hooters are reinforcing negative stereotypes and beliefs about women and women's bodies; beliefs which contribute to wider problems of sexism in society.

There is plenty of research and evidence that the continued sexual objectification of women is causing harm to children, women and men, from a rise of violence in teen relationships (1 in 3 according to research conducted by the NSPCC and Bristol University) to self esteem issues in young men and women. Girls aged 16-19 are now the highest risk group for experiencing intimate partner violence. The American Psychological Association has found convincing links to sexual objectification and violence against women and girls. The research evidence is clear on these points:

• Pressure on women and girls to look and behave in certain ways negatively affects their self-esteem and their mental health.

• Gender inequality is reinforced, and hopes for a level playing field are dashed, when women are valued for their supposed sex appeal at the expense of their other attributes and qualities.

• After being exposed to images that sexually objectify women, men are significantly more accepting of sexual harassment, interpersonal violence, rape myths, and sex role stereotypes.

There are very real concerns about the impact bikini contests and the “lad's mag” imagery that surrounds Hooters has on the female staff working there. Displaying sexist and pornographic imagery contradicts sexual harassment guidelines and creates a hostile working environment for women and men. The council should be concerned that Hooters believe it to be acceptable to expose their staff to competitions and imagery that presents women as only and always sex objects. This doesn’t encourage a safe and positive working environment, and I feel that by displaying such imagery and hosting these events, they may cause upset and distress to staff members.
Furthermore, in May 2011 Hooters served a 12-year-old boy and his school friends a pornographic birthday cake in the “restaurant”. This cake was in the shape of naked, disembodied breasts, decorated with the words “Happy 12th Birthday”, and in the Hooters colours of white and orange. This is all part of a pattern of the commodification of women’s body parts, selling women’s sexuality or bodies as entertainment. Serving up women’s breasts for consumption, treating women’s disembodied breasts as the ultimate consumable.

What impact does this has on the female waiting staff who are once more being confronted with pornographic imagery in their day-to-day working lives. As Hooters is not classified as a sex-entertainment venue, it is surely not ok for the establishment to expose their staff to sexist imagery such as naked breasts and bikini contests.

Complaints have gone to the council and a formal letter has been drafted here, so that if you want to sign up to complain against Hooters potentially breaking their licensing conditions you can do. The letter explains the breaches, but hopefully this blogpost explains to you why this is an issue for feminists and women and men everywhere who have had enough of the commercial sexual exploitation of women.

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