Westfield are powerless to use their power to make change in Australia

Ah, Breastfield. Everyone’s favourite sex mall. You can go there for your dildos, now.

Going to Westfield!.jpgRecently, a WAAC member made complaints to Westfield Belconnen about the harm that sexist ads displayed by the Honey Birdette sex shop and by Bras N Things (heading the way of HB, it seems, in selling whips) in their mall-facing shop windows cause women and girls. What was intriguing to learn was that it took only two complaints (about different sets of adverts) for the issue to be escalated to the Centre Manager, who then called our member directly to discuss the matter. A polite conversation ensued in which the Centre Manager relayed several times how much Westfield cannot do about (their implicit support for) advertising that normalises aggression towards women and girls. This seemed a rather curious line for Westfield to take, i.e., to bang on about how powerless they are to stop giving leases to retailers whose advertising practices are predicated upon the predation of women; but when you consider how Westfield CEO Peter Allen (a ‘Male Champion of Change’ — what a joke) failed to respond to a 55,000-signature petition calling for better advertising standards at Westfield, you can see how the corporation’s functionaries are only toeing the capitalist party line. Worse though, is that, no matter how often you invite Westfield to explore the evidence of the links between male violence and aggression towards women and the ubiquity of sexist and objectifying advertising of women, they flat-out ignore their responsibility as a corporate citizen.

Before we go any further, however, think about this. Westfield last year made $1.5 billion profit, $800 million of which came from property income. Scentre Group (Westfield’s parent company) is currently on the ASX Top 20 list with a $51 billion portfolio of (at time of writing) 39 centres and 11,600 retail outlets, with more than 3.6 million square metres of retail space. That’s a lot of room in which to place sexist ads. And money is power, right?

So, what did we learn about how much Westfield so does not care about the sexual objectification of women and the early sexualisation of the girls who walk past these exploitative adverts? Here are some the tactical manoeuvres they use to steer you in a different direction, i.e., away from Westfield:

  • They explain that, as a landlord, Westfield tries to provide an environment that “meets the needs of a broad section of the community”, i.e., all those people who want to buy dildos and nipple covers (yes, BNT sells nipple covers, sisters, in recognition that nipples are so horrible to look at). This is pretty much the only acknowledgement you’ll get that Westfield caters to the community and has even a miniscule obligation to us in its status as a corporate citizen.
  • They then tell the complainant how much Westfield cannot do, legally, as a landlord, because retailers who display sexist advertising aren’t breaking the law, and they are abiding by the terms of their lease — the most important term of which is, presumably to pay Westfield loads and loads of money. This is where Westfield starts the party line of ‘We are a landlord’ as if landlords have no power. The ‘landlord’ line gets re-iterated over and over again — landlord, landlord, landlord — and has clearly come directly from Peter Allen who says that lessess have a large degree of autonomy in “how they sell and promote their wares… as long as they are doing so within the parameters of their legal obligations”. They don’t mention how, as a landlord, they have the power to contract annual rent escalations, remove ‘closing down’ sale signs from shop premises, and even determine which light bulbs your shop uses. Besides which, all of this fails to acknowledge the obvious social power that Westfield has to combat this kind of objectifying advertising. Although Westfield might not have much legal power, it has a good deal of influence in modern Australia — and as such a concomitant duty of care to community members, i.e. us. Westfield could use that influence to refuse leases to retailers that continually use harmful images in their mall-facing shop windows. We’re surprised they haven’t thought of this.
  • If that doesn’t work, they then encourage the complainant to contact the retailers directly as, to reiterate, Westfield ‘can’t do anything’, so powerless are they with all their corporate power and wealth and influence and corporate power. In other words, stop spamming us with your petty, woman-centred complaints, woman. This is an easier approach than having to explain why they wilfully disregard the evidence that sexist images harm women and girls. It has to be wilful, wilfully, as they’re meant to be smart people who are running the joint and they’ve been told often enough. Besides, common sense, much?
  • Next, they attempt to draw analogies with food retailers who might be found in breach of food hygiene and safety standards. In such instances, says Westfield, the centre would immediately shut the retailer down until any breaches were remedied and the retailer again fit to trade. Huzzah for Westfield! This is a rather disingenuous analogy to make to someone who is complaining about the fact that sexist advertising compromises the safety of women and girls. Given the evidence of the harm that such adverts cause, Westfield could be using its power to shut down Bras N Things and Honey Birdette and others until they are fit to trade. Seems like a double-standard from Westfield, where women and girls don’t need to be kept safe by (or from?) those with power but need to be kept safe from salmonella.
  • Finally, they declare that retailers would welcome such publicity if you dared to more protest vocally about things. ‘Don’t play into their hands! Any publicity is good publicity!’ Sure, that’s one argument; but another might be that many people simply cannot articulate the social harms that this type of advertising feeds (even if they might know it in a common-sense kind of way), and that a bit of consciousness-raising might be a good thing for our community. In fact, it would give power to the people, as opposed to Westfield, which uses its power against the people. What could hurt women about a bit of pamphleteering, protesting, and sticker-bombing so that community members are educated to the intersections of pornography, objectification, and male violence towards females? yeah, duh, nothing.

Of course, we are grateful for all the advice that Westfield slings the way of complainants, but this whole approach to handling evidence-based protests is a classic example of trying to change the way people think about a situation, rather than trying to change the situation itself. It’s a common tactic used by corporations, and even though the individual representatives of those corporations might not realise it, it’s actually a very dishonest tactic. Westfield is counting on its being powerful enough to change someone else’s perspective rather than have to change the world, itself — and it certainly has the power to change the world! It would be nice if they used that power for good instead of evil.You've been WAAC'd

Westfield, you’ve been WAAC’d.

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