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.

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