A billboard recently went up in North Carolina promoting a message that decent people everywhere are tired of hearing: "Real men provide. Real women appreciate it." Yep, there's an actual "Real Men Provide" billboard that the public is seeing with their eyeballs as they pass by in their cars every day, and I just can't stop shaking my head about it. Clearly, we haven't made as much progress toward gender equality over the past, oh, I don't know, centuries as I had hoped.
The billboard, located on an interstate highway in Winston-Salem, features a white background blaring the "real men provide" message in big, black letters. That's it — nothing else. According to CNN, the billboard was leased for $2,000 by a group that's requested to remain anonymous for now. The lease lasts for 30 days, but the billboard's current "advertisement" could remain if the group decides to renew the lease. Shortly after the billboard was put in place, Twitter blew up with many tweets from residents and visitors who had begun to take notice. Opponents of the billboard are hosting protests in North Carolina this weekend, and people on social media have gotten in heated discussions about whether or not the message should actually be considered offensive.
As a passersby, you would expect a billboard to be advertising fast food or health insurance, not sexist ideals. Honestly, y'all, it's 2017 and we're still having this conversation? The fact that this billboard actually exists — and there's a real debate about whether it's sexist — it shows exactly how far we have to go before we reach true equality. (It's far. Very, very far.)
This billboard hits home for me, and not just because I'm a woman. I lived in North Carolina for about 15 years before I moved to New York, and I've visited Winston-Salem many times. Now, I'm staring at the billboard on my computer screen, and it feels like a slap in the face. I simply can't imagine what it would have been like if I'd been driving in my dad's car down Interstate 40 and then seeing that billboard. It frustrates me because everyone should be angry about a message like that, not just progressive women. Not only does the billboard attack women — in addition to enforcing a sexist hierarchy with men at the top and women below, it also suggests that women are unable to provide for themselves — but moreover, the words "real men provide" also places the responsibility of providing for the family solely on men. Not to mention, it also completely erases non-binary and gender-fluid people as well as same-sex couples.
In short, with this kind of message, literally everyone loses.
There's no such thing as a "real" man or woman, and not all households are made of male-female relationships. A relationship is about shared commitments. Genuine appreciation doesn't strictly fall on any one gender. These are values that go beyond traditional gender roles, and I think the fact that the group that leased this billboard doesn't want to be identified speaks volumes. With the power of anonymity, this group is able to express their opinions freely regardless of the pain it causes other people, and without the burden of being held accountable for their actions.
As a member of the press, I'm all for free speech and I generally do not think censorship is the right move when it comes to political discourse. But where do we draw the line for public billboards that promote sexism? Or racism, or xenophobia, or homophobia, or transphobia, or any of the other forms of discrimination that are still sadly so prevalent in our society?
It's up to us, the people who are on the receiving end of this awful billboard (both men and women), to fight against the patriarchy even as it continues to oppress and box us into categories. Let this be a wake-up call, a reminder that there is much work ahead before we can call ourselves an "equal" society.