When sex is more than subliminal

Kirsty Davies decries the coming of Hooters to Cardiff

Hooters, the “glamour-concept restaurant bar”, is apparently coming to Cardiff. The US restaurant chain, which prides itself on its scantly-clad waitresses, is planning to open a franchise in the heart of the city, squeezed between John Lewis and Cineworld on Mary Ann Street.

I am disappointed but not surprised. Established in 1983, Hooters has developed into a multinational company, currently operating throughout 39 US states in addition to Asia, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico and Puerto Rico. Propelled by the momentum of its own success, the company has accrued considerable experience in supporting its various franchises both in terms of streaming applications and overcoming community opposition.  There is only one other Hooters in the UK, in Nottingham. A community campaign stopped a planning application in Sheffield while a branch planned for Southend never opened.

The licensing application for Cardiff Hooters was granted on 17 August after the city council said it had received no “valid objections”. The Licensing Committee granted the license without discussion, despite several objections from public and pressure groups. It stated that “none of the comments constituted a valid objection under the terms of the Licensing Act 2003”. The Liberal Democrat Chair of the Licensing Committee Ed Bridges said:

“The Licensing Act 2003 is very prescriptive about what constitutes a valid representation. In the case of this application, there were no objections from the police, noise pollution or from any of the elected representatives for the local area; neither were there any representations – either for or against – from people who lived or worked in the vicinity.”

Hooters UK franchise holder, William McTaggart, the sole director of Bubo Restaurants Company Limited, has expressed his wish to create 80 or 90 new jobs. Responding, to claims that Hooters exploits its all-female serving staff by requiring them to wear special uniforms in a highly sexualised enviroment, he stated, “People have the right to have their opinion, but it’s a wholesome cheerleader look,” adding, “that is the brand, that’s all I can really say”. Here are a few lines from an American Hooters Employee Handbook:

  1. My job duties require I wear the designated Hooters Girl uniform.
  2. My job duties require that I interact with and entertain the customers.
  3. The Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and the work environment is one in which joking and entertaining conversations are commonplace.
  4. I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements, or work environment to be offensive, intimidating, hostile, or unwelcome.

This kind of sexualisation of women in the workplace threatens the progress we have made towards gender equality in Wales. It is an overt part of a culture that offers subliminal sex in order to sell products and ‘get ahead’?

Several of my friends and colleagues have suggested that I should focus my efforts elsewhere, arguing that I’m wasting my time on an insignificant issue. But would they be happy for their daughters, partners or sisters to be contractually bound to accept “joking and entertaining conversations” that they might find uncomfortable or unwelcome?

As to evidence the character of this occupational repartee, I have then suggested that they check the unofficial “Hooters” supporters group on Facebook.

Alongside such posts as “Take this feminists”, and  “I love the fact there are more females than males in this group telling the feminist to **** off… good on them!”, one can also read “Cheer up feminists, its not hooters fault you’re all ugly.” The site’s links feature ‘Rugmunchers moan about new Cardiff Bar’ and ‘The Cardiff Feminist Network want to stop women from wearing skirts that come above the ankles and all shoulders to be covered’.

In this Hooters supporters site we find evidence of the very homophobia and sexist objectification denied by the franchise’s owner. The irony of the rejection of counter arguments on an explicitly sexist basis is sadly lost.

In May this year a lawsuit was filed against Hooters in Michigan when an employee was told “that her shirt and short size could use some improvement”. This was part of her ‘performance review’. It was reported that she was told to lose weight otherwise she would lose her job. Do we want to send a message to young women in Wales that it is OK to be hired or fired based on your physical appearance?

As I see it, the issue is not whether women should be permitted to wear gym-shorts, ankle-socks and tight fitting T-shirts; Rather it should not be part of their job description that they should do so.

The argument that women are free to choose whether they work for Hooters does not work when set in its wider context. While on average women continue to earn 30 per cent less than men, suffer disproportionately from ‘labour flexibility’ (that is part-time and temporary work, in addition to the burden of domestic labour), this so-called ‘free-choice’ is not really free. Rather, it signifies the self-same, culturally supported duress that, and under extreme circumstances, leads women into sexual slavery and prostitution.

There can be no ‘level-playing field’ between male and female objectification whilst the latter remain trapped in oppressive and unequal social relationships, especially in employment. In a world where women’s suggested availability for sex forms a part of their skill-set, Hooters not only knows the drill, but has devised a business plan designed to push us ahead in the race to the bottom.

Kirsty Davies is Deputy Director of the IWA and a Liberal Democrat Cardiff County Councillor.

9 thoughts on “When sex is more than subliminal

  1. Hooters denigrates, sexualizes, and objectifies women in the worst way, but so too does a lap dancing club – and at last look there are four lap dancing clubs in Cardiff, with the possibility of more depending on current licence applications; the denigration of women in Cardiff already exists. A more serious and very real concern is that the sexism Hooters endorses is a much more casual, and therefore more subversive, form of sexism. When placed in the mainstream environment it becomes much more of a regressive force in terms of gender equality – they have a children’s menu! Like casual racism, if allowed to go unchecked, it poses a serious threat to the progress of our liberal society
    As a Cardiffian currently living in the US I see the real issue here as context and location. The three Hooters in Columbus, Ohio, where I live, are located on the outskirts of the city. To go to a Hooters takes a willing effort – you know where you’re going and what you’re getting. A Hooters in an entertainment and shopping district of the city center is a different issue. If Hooters were called ‘Tits’ and located on St. Mary’s street there would be a huge and understandable outcry, but if it were located off the mainstreet and marketed as what it is – as lap dancing clubs now – and with an age restriction on admittance, would there be so much controversy? Would there be harm?
    The UK franchisee’s remark about the waitress uniform being a “wholesome cheerleader look” should be dismissed out of hand as the lazy evasion it is, but it should not be dismissed outright as it confirms a calculated marketing strategy: it is because it is an adult entertainment bar/restaurant that wants to pose as a mainstream restaurant in an entertainment district (next to a cinema complex, an arena, and a department store, frequented by families) that we should be opposed to Hooters. The US Hooters website recognizes this strategy:
    “Hooters characterizes itself as a neighborhood place, not a typical family restaurant. […] Hooters does not market itself to families, but they do patronize the restaurants […] Hooters is in the hospitality business and provides the best possible service to anyone coming through the door. For this reason, the chain offers a children’s menu […] The chain acknowledges that many consider “Hooters” a slang term for a portion of the female anatomy. Hooters does have an owl inside its logo and uses an owl theme sufficiently to allow debate to occur over the meaning’s intent. The chain enjoys and benefits from this debate. In the end, we hope Hooters means a great place to eat.”
    Hooters’ food, by the way, is terrible.

  2. Since they define themselves as a restaurant, by advertising for, hiring and employing one sex only as waiting staff, Hooters are actually contravening the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, Part 2, Section 7 of which does not list restaurant waiting staff as an exemption under its definitions of genuine occupational qualifications.

    As for the dress code rules compelling employees to dress in a way that conforms to patriatchally-created and defined sexist gender stereotypes so long as an equivalent sexist dress code is enforced equally towards both male and female employees: unfortunately that’s totally legal – as many of us in the trans community unfortunately know.

  3. I suppose one of the questions that immediately arises from Cardiff City Council granting Hooters permission to set up in Cardiff is why they are suddenly allowed to flout British sex discrimination laws whilst the rest of us are required to abide by them?

    All very intriguing.

  4. I think I am more offended by the fact that Cardiff seems to be incapable of having new pubs, bars and clubs that actually have any quality or taste. Everyone knows the bad reputation Cardiff has on a Friday and Saturday night with drunks causing havoc on St Mary Street. Why not encourage some decent pubs and bars like the ones found just outside the city centre? Why ruin the brand new development around Cineworld and John Lewis with this tat?

  5. I believe that there are lawsuits here in the US against Hooters for discriminating against women who could not fit into their uniform. I wonder if the licensing committee has taken that into account?

  6. I’m not sure as I’m no lawyer, but I think with British sex discrimination law, someone actually has to take the employers or organisations to court before the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act can be enforced.

    I would guess, Mike, that any female Hooters’ employee who took them to court because of their policy which compels female staff to be a certain weight – but has no similar rule for male staff – would almost certainly win her case as this would be a clear example of sex discrimination as defined by the Act.

    Similarly, since restaurants are not classed as an exemption to the provisions of the Act which state that all job positions must be advertised and open to males and females equally, any man who took Hooters to court if refused employment for a waiting staff vacancy purely on the grounds of being male would also win his case fairly easily.

    Under British law in order to be legal, either Hooters is compelled to change its hiring and employment policies to make them totally non-sexist or, if they still want to go on employing women-only or men-only in certain roles they will need to register as a private club – as lapdancing clubs, strip joints and men-only/women-only clubs are required by law to do.

    As it stands, the Hooters establishment in Nottingham; the permitted Hooters establishments in Cardiff and now Bristol are technically illegal under British law.

  7. So too, with regard to the Hooters’ dress code: if female staff are required to wear what would conventionally be regarded as sexualised, ‘skimpy’ clothing then the male staff at Hooters should also be required to wear what’s conventionally understood to be the male equivalent of sexualised, ‘skimpy’ clothing.

    Under British law, employers and organisations forcing men and women to dress differently (even if the gender stereotypes of feminine or masculine required to be adhered to are, arguably, historically sexist) is not considered as sex discrimination as long as the required standards of dress (be they dressed-up and smart or sexualised and skimpy) of both sexes equally.

    As soon as somebody takes out a lawsuit against them in Britain, I would guess that Hooters would be in a whole lot of deep water.

    Possibly too, those responsible within the local councils which have allowed these venues to go ahead whilst in their illegal form as restaurants might also be implicated in any future legal actions.

  8. Hmmm…I just took a look at the online application form that the Hooters UK site and found this other bizarre requirement, too:

    “I understand and agree that Hooters reserves the right to request me to undergo a medical examination”

    If Hooters is a normal restaurant – as it constantly insists that it is – then why on earth did they need to write this pre-condition into their employment contract? After all, it’s a place where they serve chicken wings – not the armed forces!!!

    So, I have my suspicions that Hooters have this rule in place to prevent any pre-op and non-op transwomen from gaining employment as waiting staff and this too is illegal discrimination if such women hold a Gender Recognition Certificate under the Gender Recognition Act.

    I’ve been doing a little research on Hooters’ attitude towards the LGBT community and anecdotal evidence informs me that transwomen applying for jobs as ‘Hooters Girls’ have had their applications rejected blatantly on the grounds that they are transsexual.

  9. @Katie, Can you please provide a link to the Hooters UK online application form that you quote from?

    The Hooters Nottingham website does not appear to show any requirement for a medical examination.

    Also, compliance with equality law is not an objective of the licencing regime, therefore the local authority has no business in denying a licence on this basis

    It will be interesting to see if anyone successfully sues for sex discrimination. I note that Hooters Nottingham has been operating for around 10 years and has yet to be buried under an avalanche of litigation. I also assume that the new franchise owner took legal advice before taking the business on.

    I suppose that now it’s become something of a feminist cause celebre it’s inevitable that a few chancers will try their luck in court

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