‘Hottest refugee’ search is cheap, nasty and revealing

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
July 19, 2012 /

Click here to view original /

My gut instinct revulsion to Zoo Weekly’s search for Australia’s “hottest refugee” delivered me two angles for an article.

One is my exhaustion over manufactured controversy. Evidently so scarce are ideas in advertising that marketers fervently allow the squeaky wheels, whingers, and the oh-so-easily flustered to complain about their hideousness. To get talking heads to do the gasbagging for them rather than concoct anything even slightly decent themselves.

Cheap. Nasty.

The second is the more obvious grotesquery of trivialising a serious issue with what’s ostensibly a beauty contest. As though the only way that a magazine – which rarely rises above boobs and pub jokes – could get interested in refugees is if it can squeeze itself into a skimpy bikini.

Cheap. Nasty.

Fair criticisms, both. Only, outrage from a feminist academic who is quite clearly not in Zoo‘s target demographic only fuels the insanity. Instead, I’m going to dare defend the wretched rag.

It may be thoroughly revolting to think that something – an issue, for example, or a policy – has to be packaged in an attractive, palatable way for us to pay attention. But this happens constantly. Following Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis, the numbers of women seeking mammograms skyrocketed. It was dubbed the Kylie Factor.

In 2008, Oprah gave her endorsement to Obama and an extra million of those too-often politically apathetic Americans went out and voted for him. The Oprah Effect.

Would a few million people have ever heard of Darfur if it wasn’t for George? Cue the Clooney Effect.

Having attractive spokespeople is at the heart of advertising and is why having celebrities fronting causes can give traction. Having a likeable, good looking refugee just might draw some positive attention to an issue that currently is only ever framed as a blight.

Connected to this is the logic behind putting names and faces to stories. The refugee issue is invariably reported quantitatively. How many boats. How many arrivals. How much it’s costing tax payers.

And amidst that blur of numbers, it’s effortless for audiences to dissociate. To forget that real people are on those boats. Individuals. Unique personalities. People just like us from places far worse.

By personalising a story, heart-strings are tugged, outrage is felt, those Zoo Weekly readers so hornily drawn to a magazine that would put a bikini-clad woman with a gun on the cover, might give a little thought to an issue generally ignored.

Lastly, refugees generally don’t too closely resemble those Anglo women dominating the pages of Zoo. That women from a wide variety of underrepresented ethnic backgrounds might get a look in as attractive, as being worthy of being drooled over in a men’s magazine, certainly has the potential to help redefine our idiotically narrow concept of beauty.

Too optimistic? Sure.

Not for a moment do I think Zoo Weekly has a political agenda nor any thoughts whatsoever of promulgating equality. Hardly. It’s about keeping their lights on and paying their rent. But their revolting contest highlights the superficiality of our culture, of our politics, of our media. The hottest refugee debacle is just the latest dodgy incarnation.

© Lauren Rosewarne