When laughing matters

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 August, 1994, 12:00am

EVERY age has things you are not allowed to joke about. In the Middle Ages it was the King. During the Reformation it was God. Under Queen Victoria it was sex. Now, it seems, the new taboo is women. I deduce this from the astonishing outbreak of humourlessness which has engulfed the unlikely topic of industrial safety.

The problem started a couple of weeks ago when the Labour Department, as part of the continuing struggle against workplace injuries, unveiled some new posters.

Now I have not seen these posters. It seems they depict lady workers wearing sundry industrial safety items . . . and not much else. It is also suggested that the ladies are in ''suggestive poses'', whatever that means. My possibly primitive view is that a model wearing nothing but a safety belt, a hard hat and a pair of reinforced toe-cap Doc Marten's would be hard put to find a pose which could not be described as suggestive, but perhaps I am over-sensitive.

The posters were the subject of a public protest outside the Labour Department last week, organised by the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims of all people. I would have thought that most industrial accident victims had more important needs than the expulsion of sexual suggestions from the walls of the places where they might once have worked, but there we are.

Copies of the offending posters were torn up, and a petition was handed in. Whether it was handed in by the victim of an industrial accident caused by a sexist poster we were not told.

With this week's instalment of the story we are on more solid ground, because it comes with a copy of the poster. The guilty party is the Hong Kong Construction Association and the poster is another variation on the theme.

The association's effort is not a photographic poster; it is a cartoon comic strip. There is a lady on it, and she is more or less fully dressed. The pose suggests alarm rather than excitement. The style is something between Dragon Ball and Mickey Mouse. That was not enough to save it from the critical eye of the Federation of Women's Centres whose Linda Wong said the poster was ''particularly offensive''. She went on to say: ''The poster uses the woman as a sex object to attract men to look at it.'' A more learned variation on this theme was provided by the Hong Kong Polytechnic's Catherine Ng. The poster was ''sexist and offensive in the way that it portrays women as sex objects rather than professional people''. Ms Ng (as she presumably prefers to be called) is to alert the Business and Professional Women's Association and the Association of Women for Arts and Research.

We have an even more learned opinion from the Department of Surveying at the University of Hong Kong, where a researcher, Helen Linguard, commented: ''[The] issue of site safety should be treated as a serious one. Posters of this nature not only trivialise the safety problem but also make a mockery of professional women seeking to improve the situation.'' A FINE flowering of feminist rhetoric. What are we to make of it all? I note a widespread ignorance that there is an important different between being serious and being solemn. An artist may well seek to make a serious point in a humorous way. It is a traditional propaganda technique. So, I am afraid, is putting pictures of women on posters to get men to look at them.

Here is a curiosity. The construction association's cartoon lady is not alone on her poster. She is surrounded by men. They are all doing stupid things on construction sites and injuring themselves as a result. No men's group has complained that this facetious portrayal of men as careless construction workers demeans men, discourages serious efforts to improve industrial safety.

Another oddity: The Construction Association's cartoon lady is wearing a hard hat. Now on most construction sites in Hong Kong very few people wear these things, alas. The hard hat is a badge of rank, like the old building foreman's bowler. So she probably is a professional. Why does everyone assume the contrary? Here we are, with women suffering numerous injustices, with the possibility of legislation against discrimination in the balance, and cohorts of liberated ladies are turning up outside the Labour Department to waste an afternoon in a lather about the political correctness of safety posters.

A sense of justice is important. So is a sense of proportion.