Walking down Telegraph Avenue on my way to class recently, I was brought to an involuntary halt in front of Mars Mercantile, the vintage clothing shop on the corner of Channing. My stomach turned as I beheld the diorama in the store’s window. In what can only be described as a pornographic montage, life-sized female mannequins are depicted in various stages of torture, dismemberment, and sexually-charged violence: one mannequin is shown with a saw blade severing her neck, blood dripping from the wound; another already-mutilated head and torso are strung up by ropes; a third is blindfolded and gagged, with a noose around her neck; a fourth is tied up in nets; and a fifth is depicted with her legs flailing in the air and a knife plunged into her thigh.
Unfortunately, the offensive display does not stop with these gruesome mannequins: littered on the ground are scraps of old newspapers with headlines such as “Woman Slain on Tamalpais — Third Victim in 14 Months” and the store windows are plastered with photographs of what can only be interpreted as “missing” women and girls. The insensitivity of store employees and management who would make light of the very real pain in such stories is appalling.
Yes, this is Halloween. But last time I checked, Halloween was about ghosts and ghouls, not violence against women. A scary holiday is no excuse for broadcasting a distasteful display of misogynistic violence to anyone who happens to glance into a store window. Besides: how, exactly, is this diorama encouraging passersby to purchase costumes in the store?
When another editor and I separately confronted the manager of Mars about the display, pointing out the overtly sexual nature of the violence it depicts, she politely apologized that we were offended by the diorama, assuring us that her intention was not to encourage violence against women. Okay. Even granting this, what matters is not so much the intention as the effect.
Given that one in four women is a survivor of rape or sexual assault and that many more women and men know survivors of rape, a significant number of those passing by Mars’ window on any given day will have been closely touched by the pain of sexual violence. Wouldn’t a reasonable person understand that these realistic depictions are likely to bring back a flood of deeply hurtful memories? Likewise, children will also be especially sensitive to such graphic images of sadistic brutality.
Although they are a small minority, there are also people who are excited by the thought of such violence, whose imaginations will leap at the three-dimensional display of horror. What if one, just one, of those passersby acts on such a fantasy? Unlikely, I know. Still, the immeasurable pain of that act should be enough to make a wise person think twice about “normalizing” such savagery.
Some might protest that the store windows only show the same violence that has already saturated our culture in the form of ubiquitous B-movie slasher flicks. Fair enough. I won’t waste space pontificating about our culture’s fascination with such “torture porn,” but I will point out a difference between those movies and the display at Mars: consumers choose whether to see a horror film, but a pedestrian on Telegraph Avenue has no choice about being confronted with the images in Mars’ windows.
And if you still think I’m a prude for being bothered, consider the public outcry in response to Nike’s ill-conceived 2000 Olympics commercial, which featured a chainsaw-wielding killer chasing a female runner. NBC quickly pulled the ad in response to criticisms that it made sport of real violence against women. Let us ask Mars to do the same with their much more disturbing window diorama.
Since our initial complaints, the store has modified its display, removing the gag, hood, and noose from one of the mannequin victims. With a little more pressure, perhaps they will take down the whole thing. If you care about violence against women, please take a few minutes to call the store and respectfully let them know that the display offends you. Or, better yet, stop by and have a conversation about it, using the opportunity to build understanding and sensitivity. Violence against women should not be trivialized by anyone in our city or on our campus.
— Update October 30, 2009 at 12:23 a.m.
Thank you to all of you who have stopped by Mars Mercantile or called the store to express your concerns. Although the store’s employees and management have become increasingly hostile to complaints over the last two days, they have now made substantial changes to the display in the front window. The mannequin lying on the ground with her legs flailing in the air is gone, and the mannequin wrapped in nets and the one formerly hooded and gagged now sport alien masks. Instead of being a diorama singularly focused on violence against women it is now … different, but better. Unfortunately, the dismembered mannequins in the side window remain unchanged, as do the disturbingly real articles detailing homicides and the photos of missing women and girls. Still, this is certainly a victory, even if small. Thanks to all who played a part in it.