I don’t want to come across as a prude and less so do I want to judge. So how do I say this delicately?
For those of us who always hoped that Israel would stand for just a little bit more than some of the values of the rest of the world, GoDaddy.com’s Super Bowl ad with Bar Refaeli was a disappointment.
For many decades in the United States we have fought a rearguard action to sustain the dignity of women, especially in how they are portrayed in the media and in advertising. I dedicated an entire book to this theme entitled, Hating Women. In it I demonstrated the gradual evolution of, say, the female recording industry which had once focused primarily, as it should, on a woman’s voice and musical talent, but later came to focus, with artists like Madonna and Britney Spears, on salaciousness and sex. That is a battle that has been mostly lost. It is now a given that a woman who does not show a lot of leg and a lot more cleavage will probably never reach the highest echelons of musical stardom, although the careers of superstars like Adele, who does not flaunt her body, and Susan Boyle, who does not fit the stereotype, still give us some hope. Surely, Beyoncé’s amazing performance at the Super Bowl demonstrates that seductiveness is essential to female musical entertainment. One cannot separate her sexiness from the high-energy rendition which impressed millions. To attempt to criticize that would now be seen as retrograde and primitive.
And yet our culture still believes there are things that cross a line. The classic example is another Super Bowl incident, this time in 2004, when Janet Jackson had her famous wardrobe malfunction with Justin Timberlake. Showing a breast on TV was something that deeply upset most Americans because their children were watching.
Fast forward now to the GoDaddy.com commercial with Bar Refaeli. GoDaddy has been the worst offender in the exploitation and degradation of women via Super Bowl advertisements for a number of years now. Many of their ads straddle the line of soft porn, which they then invite you to see a lot more of if you go online. What the connection between a woman’s body and online storage might be is something that many of us might well find mystifying.
But the Bar Refaeli commercial transcended even that. Here was a woman having a tongue-to-tongue kiss with a man on a program that is watched by millions of children. I know my children were watching and I felt uncomfortable. It was my seven-year-old’s birthday. He was watching the Super Bowl with my four-year-old and with our other children. Every year they wait for our family’s Super Bowl party. Was this what they had to see? It’s a football game, for heaven’s sake. If you watch the uncensored version, which was available on the Internet, it’s much worse. They might say it’s just a kiss. But if it were just that, GoDaddy would not have wasted millions of dollars airing it. It was meant to shock, and it achieved its intent.
Why did it have to be Israel’s supermodel in the ad?
I get it. We are all susceptible to the vagaries of celebrity, and at times we may allow ourselves to be compromised in its pursuit. This is especially true, I can imagine, when something like this probably involves a very large payday as well. That’s why I say I don’t want to judge. But surely, one’s image can also benefit from wholesomeness. As one of the world’s most beautiful women – with the exception of my wife (now can I buy that case of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, honey?) – Refaeli could have won over tens of millions of viewers, especially Moms, who would have equated her image with feminine dignity and self-esteem.
To be sure, Bar Refaeli was controversial long before the GoDaddy ad because she did not serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. Fair enough. There are many religious Jewish girls who don’t serve in the IDF either. But they do enlist in national service. Refaeli’s explanation, however, was something that, as a father of a young woman who is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces for two years, I found equally disappointing. She is quoted as saying, “I don’t regret not enlisting, because it paid off big time. That’s just the way it is, celebrities have other needs.” And yet, there was arguably never a bigger celebrity of the 20th century than Elvis Presley. But he proudly served his country in the army between 1958 and 1960. Clark Gable was pretty famous. He served in the Air Force between 1942 and 1945. Bill Cosby served in the navy for four years. As far as women are concerned, Julia Child was an intelligence officer with the wartime Office of Strategic Services.
I could go on.
But even if Refaeli had enlisted in another form of national service – anything that promotes others’ needs – in lieu of the military, that would have been acceptable. That includes being a supermodel who serves as a de facto Ambassador of Israel’s values. And what are those values?
Throughout the Middle East women are treated as chattel, the property of men, creatures who need to be hidden behind tent-like clothing because they are too alluring and cause men to sin. But Israel treats women as the equals of men. Israel has had a female Prime Minister when even the United States has not yet had a female head of state. More women are in Israel’s universities than men. Yes, women should be physically attractive. Their beauty need never be denied or suppressed. But neither need it be exploited. The healthy middle ground is what we seek: Neither the extreme of fundamentalist Islam that sees only a walking invitation to seduction, nor the extreme of Western sexual exploitation, which sees a woman’s body as a marketing opportunity.
At the very least, we can take consolation that Sodastream, an Israeli company that I and my family love, had an outstanding Super Bowl ad for all to watch featuring a great product that combines carbonated water and soft drink mix in mass quantities, without having to buy individual containers separately, thereby saving the environment from untold millions of plastic bottles.
Hurrah for Israel. A positive Super Bowl coming out party at last.