By Ann D. Koffsky and Sarah D. Rudolph
We all know the new look: A couple is honored; their names are both printed, but only the man is shown.
An ad for a grocery store shows a family shopping for groceries: a toddler sister (with hair blocking her face, of course), a big brother, and … an uncle? Big brother’s best friend?
Well. Two adult men.
Let’s be honest: Many of the images we’ve been seeing in our Jewish media unintentionally communicate some strange messages — one weirder and more bizarre than the next, particularly in the context of a chareidi publication.
But what they all communicate is this: There is value in showing images of men, but no value in showing images of women. Or rather, any theoretical value in showing images of women is outweighed by the (apparent) dangers of letting women — modest and inspiring though they may be — be seen.
These bizarre ads are not only seen in Lakewood, Monsey, and Boro Park. They are appearing more and more in advertisements and papers that serve the centrist Orthodox world as well. Sometimes in these very pages.
So, what’s the big deal? It’s just narishkeit. Live and let live. Who cares?
Our children care. These ads serve to undermine what we all strive to communicate to our daughters and sons—that women and men are created b’tzelem Elokim; that women and men are valued members of our community; that women and men deserve honor and respect.
The message these ads send is just as horrifying as those communicated by the popular media all around us. Beginning with Disney princesses and ending with barely clothed fashion models, the ads on billboards, television, and the internet feed our children the message — however much we may try to insulate them — that immodest beauty is the most valued asset a woman has; it is her path to honor and prestige.
At the same time, our Jewish media is unwittingly telling them a woman deserves no honor or prestige at all. Men receive high regard, while the biggest achievement a woman can hope for (much more valuable than her mesirus nefesh on behalf of the institution honoring her, or her tireless efforts in business, or the dignified clothing she sells) is allowing herself to be erased.
Whichever of these messages ends up holding sway in any given child’s perception of the world and his or her place in it, the results can be devastating.
And the implicit messages in the erasure of women come across all the more loudly when the absence of pictures of women is highlighted by the presence of pictures of men.
Just like a frame can affect how a painting looks, a picture of just the male half of a unit is set off by the empty space next to him. Highlighting what (who) is there against a backdrop of what (who) is not there sends a clear message — clearer, even, than the message would be if there were no picture at all.
This leads us to our modest proposal. Currently, most chareidi papers have policies against accepting advertisements with photos of women; if anyone wants to publicize an event or business involving women, the women must be erased from the ad. I propose that papers marketed to customers who disagree with this policy institute their own mirror policies, and only accept ads that either:
(1) Include photos of women (e.g., if both men and women are being honored at a school dinner, both must be pictured) or
(2) Exclude photos of any people at all
Larry Gordon, publisher of the 5TJT and 5TJT.com, agrees that “this is an idea and policy worthy of a discussion and consideration.”
Will it be difficult for editors to implement this policy with their advertisers? Perhaps. But let’s remember that we pledge ourselves daily to loving Hashem “b’chol m’odechah” — with all of our finances (Mishnah Berachos 9:5). Doing the right thing may not be simple, and it may even come with costs, but it’s right.
To be sure, this approach is absolutely a b’dieved, and our hearts are pained by the very idea. Are we really going to throw out men’s pictures the way we have thrown out women’s? What a loss for our community! To not have pictures of our rebbeim? To not have pictures of our tzidkaniyot? Must our grandfathers and grandmothers alike be wiped out of the visual and historic record? What a tragedy.
We hate this idea.
L’chatchilah, all publications, all advertisements, and all organizations should put the women back in — immediately! — and restore the crown of respect for bnot Yisrael where it belongs, for all to see, learn from, and emulate.
But if that is not possible…fine. If you must not show women, because you can’t risk losing the customers or the advertisers or for any other reason, then don’t show the men either.
Ads that juxtapose a man’s photo with a flower, instead of a parallel woman’s photo, brand even the most modest women as inappropriate to be seen, and brand our men as too weak to see them. Surely, that is not the statement we want to be making; surely, that is not what we want to tell our children about their parents, sisters, brothers, or themselves.
So, Jewish businesses and organizations, school dinner chairpersons, conference organizers, fundraisers, newspaper publishers: please put the women back in.
But if you can’t do that, then please take the men out, too.
At least that way, we won’t have to explain to our impressionable children why the men are visible and the women are gone.
Ann D. Koffsky has worked in Jewish media for the past 25 years as an editor, art director, author, and illustrator. She is also the webmaster of FrumWomenHaveFaces.com.
Sarah Rudolph is a Jewish educator, writer, and editor. Many of her classes are available on WebYeshiva.org, and her writing appears frequently in OU Life (the OU’s website) as well as other digital and print media.